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ICYMI: Austin American-Statesman Op-ed “Our Immigration System is a Civil System, But it Doesn’t Operate that Way”

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Former UT Law School professor Barbara Hines breaks down why family separation is a continuation of inhumane immigration policies

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In an opinion piece published yesterday in the Austin American-Statesman, Barbara Hines, a nationally-recognized leader on immigration and asylum and a retired clinical professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law, explained how the stark and heartbreaking images of children and their families in cages is nothing new to our immigration system.

Hines points out that immigrants and asylum seekers in our country have long been treated unjustly and provided with less than due process. Hines goes on to mention that detention should be the last alternative used within a civil system, not the first, and calls for adequate funding for non-profit organizations that will provide universal legal representation.

Below is an excerpt from Barbara Hines’ piece in the Austin American-Statesman. Find the piece in its entirety here.

The stark images of separated children and parents in cage-like settings — and the total chaos of the vast immigration detention system — has outraged the American public. Yet, the incarceration of immigrants, including families and asylum seekers, is nothing new.

Although the immigration system is a civil system, it does not operate as such. Immigrants seeking asylum or other legal status in this country are treated as criminals but provided with less due-process protections. Currently, over 40,000 immigrants are incarcerated daily in a sprawling array of mostly for-profit private facilities.

An utter lack of transparency and incompetence have been hallmarks of detention. The disorganized reunification process of separated children is clear evidence. The focus on abducted children has highlighted problems that immigration advocates — including myself — have complained about for years. Abhorrent conditions, sexual abuse, inadequate food, lack of medical care and deaths in detention have been repeatedly documented. Although nothing in the system changes, the administration has pushed for expanded and longer detention.

Despite the similarities with the prison model, immigrants are not entitled to court-appointed lawyers. This makes navigating the immigration court system nearly impossible for most immigrants.

Trump’s calls for prolonged detention for everyone should not be the model. Detention for families has traumatic consequences, as I personally know, having worked in family detention centers since 2006, when the notorious T. Don Hutto facility was run by CoreCivic, one of the largest prison companies in the country. Children and their parents were housed in jail cells in a former medium- security prison, dressed in prison uniforms, and subjected to a strict prison regime. This set-up was perfectly acceptable to CoreCivic, as it maximized its profits.

Alternatives to for-profit incarceration should not be a binary choice between the separation of parents or prolonged family detention. Under a civil system, detention should be the last alternative, not the first. An individualized assessment of flight risk and danger are the legal standards that must be applied before depriving any person of his or her liberty interest. Absent exceptional circumstances, immigrants should be released to their families or into the community. Community-based alternatives are much cheaper and more effective than the costs of overdetention.

Having caught a glimpse of the inhumanity of the immigrant detention system, the American public should take a fresh look at overincarceration and urge the adoption of community-based alternatives and legal representation to allow adults and children to pursue their cases. We can do better — much better.