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Sonia Nazario: “Someone, please tell the president: There are humane, effective alternatives to his brutal policies. And they cost less, too.”

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Even Family Detention is No Place for a Child, Especially When There Are Smart, Humane and Cost-effective Alternatives

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sonia Nazario published an opinion piece in the New York Times describing the cruelty and harm of trading family separation for family detention, especially when smart, humane and cost-effective alternatives exist.

After almost two months of a cruel and inhumane policy that resulted in the separation of more than 2,300 children from parents, Trump issued an Executive Order that purports to end family separation and replace it with family detention.    

Medical experts, from pediatricians to psychologists, have resoundingly agreed that separating children from parents under Trump’s family separation policy iscausing irreparable harm…[and] can carry lifelong consequences for children.”  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which strongly opposes family separation, opposes the prolonged incarceration of families for the same reasons: the harmful long-term consequences to the well-being of both children and adults.

In her opinion, Nazario explains the dangers of family detention:

Luis Zayas, the dean of the school of social work at the University of Texas, Austin, evaluated detained families at the Karnes facility in 2014. He found that children regressed to bed wetting. A 9-year-old girl sought to return to breastfeeding. Children clung to their mothers’ legs, fearful of letting them out of sight. Many had night terrors, were depressed or acted out. They could sense their mothers’ worry.


Mothers reported that they were ordered not to let their toddlers crawl and that toys were not permitted in the living quarters. Children couldn’t get bedtime snacks. When a dozen or more people share one cell, it shatters the family structure. Moms couldn’t cook or set their own schedule. Children watched their parents become powerless. Dr. Zayas heard about a guard who cut in front of a mother who was microwaving food and said, “Quédense atrás, muertos de hambre!” — ‘Step back, you wretched people!’

A 2007 study, as noted by Nazario, found:

…children in family detention centers showed signs of severe depression and were subject to alarming disciplinary tactics, including threats to take their parents away. Mothers reported being threatened with separation from their children if they resisted signing documents they didn’t understand. Some children refused to eat and lost weight. Mental health care was limited. One mother said her daughter, who had fled rape threats by gangs in her home country, had grown depressed in detention, but repeated pleas to see a psychologist were denied.

In 2014, another study showed that “guards at these [family detention] facilities have themselves been accused of sexual assault.”

As Nazario noted, even ICE’s own advisory committee agrees family detention should rarely be used.

We offer numerous recommendations to improve detention management and conditions [in family detention]. But these should be understood in light of our basic conclusion and first recommendation, which is repeated and discussed in depth in Part I, below:

Recommendation 1-1: DHS’s immigration enforcement practices should operationalize the presumption that detention is generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families – and that detention or the separation of families for purposes of immigration enforcement or management are never in the best interest of children. DHS should discontinue the general use of family detention, reserving it for rare cases when necessary following an individualized assessment of the need to detain because of danger or flight risk that cannot be mitigated by conditions of release. If such an assessment determines that continued custody is absolutely necessary, families should be detained for the shortest amount of time and in the least restrictive setting possible; all detention facilities should be licensed, non- secure and family-friendly. If necessary to mitigate individualized flight risk or danger, every effort should be made to place families in community-based case-management programs that offer medical, mental health, legal, social, and other services and supports, so that families may live together within a community.

“Someone, please tell the president: There are humane, effective alternatives to his brutal policies. And they cost less, too.”

Nazario explains:

The family case management program, a pilot started in January 2016, allowed families seeking asylum to be released together and monitored by caseworkers while their immigration court cases proceeded. Case managers provided asylum seekers with referrals for education, legal services and housing. They also helped sort out confusing orders about when to show up for immigration court and ICE check-ins. And they emphasized the importance of showing up to all court hearings, which can stretch over two or three years.

The pilot was implemented with around 700 families in five metropolitan areas, including New York and Los Angeles, and it was a huge success. About 99 percent of immigrants showed up for their hearings.

It also did something Republicans love: It cut government spending. The program cost $36 per day per family, compared with the more than $900 a day it costs to lock up an immigrant parent with two children, said Katharina Obser, a policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The pilot, scheduled to last five years, was abruptly canceled by the Trump administration almost exactly a year ago.

Other alternatives to prison have also excelled. ICE has two programs that use electronic ankle monitors, biometric voice-recognition software, unannounced home visits, telephone reporting and global positioning technologies to track people who have been released from detention while their cases are being heard, at a cost of 30 cents to $8.04 per person per day. In 2013, 96 percent of those enrolled appeared for their final court hearings, and 80 percent of those who did not qualify for asylum complied with their removal orders.

According to direct legal service providers who work with immigrants and refugees:

Asylum seekers and those with credible legal claims and family and community in the United States have strong incentives to appear in immigration court and comply with requirements. Consequently, for many, release on recognizance or a minimal bond is appropriate because they pose little flight risk or risk to the community.

Where there is flight risk, alternatives to detention (ATDs) are not only humane, they are successful and cost-effective.  According to the 2018 ICE budget justification, it costs $133.99 per day to hold an adult immigrant in detention and $319.37 for an individual in family detention, whereas ATDs only cost an average of $4.50 per day.  A 2014 GAO study found that the ATD daily rate was less than 7% of the daily cost in detention.

Depending on the facts in each case, there are multiple and effective ATDs to ensuring “high rates of compliance with immigration check-ins, hearings and if ordered removal.”  Some options include GPS monitoring devices, in-person reporting or telephonic check-ins.

Here are some facts that support the use of community-support ATD models:

  • ICE’s now terminated Family Case Management Program (FCMP), for
    example, had compliance rates of 99% with immigration requirements such as court hearings and immigration appointments (including at least a dozen families who were ultimately deported), at a cost of only $36 per day per family.
  • Two national ATD programs — one run by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) at $7-24 a day per individual and another run by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) produced a 97% appearance rate.
  • A 1999 INS-LIRS ATD program for 25 Chinese asylum seekers produced a 96% appearance rate at 3% of the cost of detention.
  • An INS-Catholic Charities program run from 1999-2002, at a cost of only $1,430 per year per person, resulted in a 97% appearance rate for 39 asylum seekers and 64 “indefinite detainees” who could not be removed from the U.S.
  • A Vera Institute of Justice report on a supervised release and assistance program run from 1997-2000 found that, of over 500 asylum seekers, non-citizens with criminal convictions facing removal, and undocumented workers, 91% appeared for required hearings (93% for asylum seekers).
  • A 2015 family detention alternative run by LIRS cost only $50 a day for an entire family to receive housing for families without support, orientations on compliance, access to legal representation and wrap-around case management (just 6% of the cost of family detention).