Olivia Caceres was recently reunited with her 1-year-old son, Mateo, after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials took him from his parents, who saught asylum at the U.S. port of entry in San Ysidro last November. Barely able to walk or talk, Mateo spent months without family in a refugee shelter in Texas. Olivia says that Mateo now cries when he sees strangers. His father remains in immigration detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a for-profit immigrant prison in California.
The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting all unlawful entrants to the country, resulting in families torn apart, is a startling escalation of the Obama administration’s policies. But this practice is not new. I have been working with families separated by our immigration detention system for about a decade.
When I was in law school, in 2009, my friend’s father was arrested in a home raid by ICE. He was sent to an immigration detention facility in Arizona. We could not find him for two days. My friend only reconnected with him over the phone after he had been deported to Mexico. She remains separated from her father to this day; she can’t travel to see him as she’s undocumented, so they Skype and meet at the border.
I co-founded a nonprofit in 2010 called Freedom for Immigrants (formerly CIVIC), a watchdog organization that monitors the conditions in immigration detention centers, because I could no longer bear to see children ripped away from their mothers and fathers, thrown into cells, and treated inhumanely.
On any given day, there are more than 40,000 people in immigration detention in the United States. Very few have access to attorneys or to their families. While the U.S. has the right to maintain its sovereignty and protect its borders, our country does not have to respond to migration by stripping asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, and green card holders of basic human rights and subjecting them to traumatic conditions.
Our organization works to expose this abusive system. We visit and monitor 55 of the largest immigrant prisons and jails and run a toll-free national hotline that enables people in immigrant prisons to report human and civil rights abuses.
And the abuses we’ve documented inside these facilities are serious. Roxsana Hernandez, an asylum seeker from Central America who died from pneumonia after spending five days in a freezing holding cell and being denied medical care, was one of seven who died while in ICE custody this year.
We’ve also documented sexual and physical abuse in immigration detention. Between 2010 and 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office of the Inspector General received more than 33,000 complaints of sexual and physical abuse against DHS component agencies. More complaints were lodged against ICE than any other agency. Yet less than one percent of these complaints were investigated.
One under-18 girl who was held at the Karnes County Residential Center, a family detention facility in Texas, filed a sexual assault complaint. A medical examination after the sexual assault found vaginal scarring and a sexually transmitted infection, but her complaint was dismissed as “unfounded.” Between 2010-2016, 1,016 complaints of sexual assault, 402 complaints of coerced sexual contact, and 196 complaints of sexual harassment were lodged against ICE officers, contracted facilities, and even medical professionals.
The growing outrage over family separation at the border has generated protests across the political spectrum, as immigrant children are left with no one to care and fend for them. But let’s think bigger than just keeping families together in detention centers that don’t meet basic standards: Why jail people crossing the border in the first place, when we can implement humane community-based solutions instead?
Community accompaniment programs are detention alternatives that allow immigrants to live with family, volunteers, or in group homes while the courts process their immigration cases. Studies in partnership with the government have shown that 93 percent of asylum seekers and 94 percent of noncitizens with past criminal convictions in such programs show up for their immigration hearings. And a pilot program conducted in 2015 with ICE found that it costs only $50 a day for a family to receive housing and wrap-around services compared to the $798 per day it costs taxpayers for a family to be imprisoned.
Freedom for Immigrants has been piloting these programs since 2014, and in the first six months of our San Francisco Bay Area-based program, we were able to secure the safe release and housing of 61 people, showing that Americans want to welcome immigrants. T And this week, we launched an online petition where Americans can pledge to host or sponsor immigrant families or children. We are hoping to show that there is widespread support for solutions that keep families together.
We as a country can choose to respond to migration in a compassionate, safe, and cost-effective way that doesn’t involve jailing people fleeing war or ripping immigrant families apart. In this moment of crisis, we have an opportunity to do what’s right—for their benefit and for ours.
Christina Fialho is an attorney and the co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. Sign up to volunteer here.