Trump's Push to Detain More Migrant Families Is Risky and Inhumane, Advocates Warn

7 min
The South Texas Family Residential Center, the largest immigrant family detention facility in the U.S., can hold 2,400 mothers and children. (Julie Small/KQED)

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s the number of families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border grows, the Trump administration is contemplating the detention of more parents with their children while they wait to go before an immigration judge.

A new directive by U.S. Attorney General William Barr that takes effect in July requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain all asylum-seekers for the months, or even years, it takes to decide their cases.

It's not clear how the change in policy will be applied to families, whose children are protected from lengthy detention under a decades-old legal agreement.

Most of the families currently arriving from Central America are being released into the U.S. and given a notice to appear at an immigration court. A small minority — 627 mothers and children — are being detained together, according to an official with ICE; nearly all of them are being held at the South Texas Family Residential Center.

Most Migrant Families Detained in Rural Texas

The facility next to the rural city of Dilley can hold up to 2,400 mothers and their children and is the largest family detention center in the country, but it has come under scrutiny as inspectors and detained families report instances of inadequate care.

ICE refused KQED's request to tour the facility to speak with staff and detainees.

Dilley detention center can hold up to 2,400 moms and kids and is the largest in the US
Flood lights at the South Texas Family Residential Center for asylum-seeking mothers with children. (Julie Small/KQED)

From the outside, all that's visible from the highway turnoff are the tops of large tents and numerous light poles.

Katy Murdza, an advocacy coordinator with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, who helps families detained at Dilley, said the detention center’s floodlights are so bright, there’s a glow a mile away from it at night. Some of the mothers she has spoken with have complained that the lights, which are never turned off, make it hard to sleep.

The nonprofit Dilley Pro Bono Project helps families prepare for the first hurdle in the asylum process: convincing U.S. authorities they will be persecuted or tortured if they return to their home countries.

Every time legal advocates enter the detention center, they undergo a rigorous security check, Murdza said. Similar to an airport inspection, they have to take off belts and remove all of their belongings from their bags to show to staff.

“There's a lot of things you can't bring in,” Murdza said. “You can't bring in makeup, hand sanitizer — anything that ICE considers contraband.”

To speed things up, Murdza and many of her colleagues cart their belongings in plastic, see-through backpacks.

Once inside, attorneys and legal advocates can only access meeting rooms inside a trailer, or a courtroom where mothers and children present their cases to a judge via video conferencing.

Murdza said one of the challenges when helping families is managing the needs of kids. Because they’re often too sick to go to day care, or too traumatized to be separated from their moms, children tag along to legal consultations.

“We've had kids throwing up in the meeting with the mom,” Murdza said. “Moms are deciding between going and waiting for hours at the clinic or meeting with their lawyer.”

Caring for Children in Detention

Part of Murdza’s day is spent filing email complaints to ICE on behalf of clients she said aren’t receiving the care they need, like mothers with pregnancy complications or children losing weight quickly.

In an April 23 email, ICE said the allegations were being made by “non-clinicians with very limited access and knowledge to the full range of services and care provided” and that migrants at Dilley who require a higher level of care “are referred to the local hospital network.”

But two doctors who investigated the care at Dilley in 2017 found it inadequate, especially for children.

“The government had great difficulty in keeping children safe and meeting their own standards,” said Dr. Scott Allen in a phone interview earlier this year.

Allen, who was contracted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in 2014 to investigate the quality of medical care in family detention, found many problems.

Allen and a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Pamela McPherson, visited all of the family detention facilities in the country over a three-year period to interview staff, detainees and review medical records.

In addition to Dilley, they toured the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, the Berks Family Residential Center in Berks, Pennsylvania, and a now-defunct detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico.

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The doctors found problems with recruiting and retaining qualified pediatricians and mental health care providers, and a lack of access to emergency and specialty care, given the remote locations of most of the detention centers.

“That has been continuous across facilities and continued until our last investigation,” Allen said.

He said that dedicated medical and custody staff were not at fault.

"We found a lot of good people in these facilities, both from the contracting agencies and the government agencies, Homeland Security, who are working really hard trying to keep these children safe,” Allen said. “The problem is they are not being given adequate resources.”

Last June, after The Trump administration proposed to increase the number of beds for family detention from 3,400 to 15,000, Allen and McPherson sent a letter to Congress cautioning against the move.

“Our concern is that if you rapidly expand, the logistical challenges are multiplied and the number of children placed at risk is also increased,” Allen said.

The doctors, who are represented by lawyers at the Government Accountability Project, raised additional concerns this spring.

Both Allen and McPherson still work for Homeland Security as subject matter experts, but neither has been asked to investigate family detention since 2017. The doctors asked Congress to investigate whether Homeland Security has conducted any additional investigations of conditions in family detention.

Legal Limits to Family Detention

However, any expansion of family detention may be curtailed by a long-standing legal agreement. The 1997 Flores settlement set national standards for the humane treatment of migrant children in American custody.

“The settlement says you can detain children,” said Professor Bill Hing with the University of San Francisco School of Law. “But if you detain children, you've got to meet certain requirements.”

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Hing has served as a monitor for the Flores lawsuit, visiting government facilities holding kids, including the South Texas Family Residential Center. He said the judge overseeing the settlement has made it clear that the facility in Dilley can only be used to hold children with their parents temporarily.

Dilley Pro Bono Project provides legal help to migrant families in detention in south Texas
Katy Murdza shows Dilley Pro Bono Project's banner to end detention of asylum-seeking families. (Julie Small/KQED)

The Trump administration has challenged that limit in the Central District Court of California, arguing that the protections for migrant minors should only apply to children who aren't with a parent.

Hing said that reasoning misses the mark.

"Even if you've got your mom with you, you're still a child,” he said.

Hing visited the family detention center in Dilley about a year ago. He said it looked like a campus, with clean classrooms, a library and places to exercise. But then he saw a group of mothers in an orientation meeting, with young, but lethargic children on their laps, many of them sick.

“They just didn’t have any energy, it was so sad,” Hing said. "That’s when you do say to yourself, ‘Really, in the United States we have this, where we’re detaining mothers and children?’ ”

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Back in Dilley, Murdza said no families have to be locked up.

“ICE can choose whether or not to detain someone,” she said. “And that's why we are advocating for the end to family detention. It's not something that's required.”

The April 16 directive from Attorney General Barr, however, appears to require the detention of all families seeking asylum at least for the 20 days currently allowed under the Flores settlement during an influx of migrant families.

ICE has repeatedly described family detention as a "humane" way for families to stay together while their asylum case is resolved.

This story was reported in collaboration with Public Radio International's The World.

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