New Hope for Refugee Families in Detention Camps

July 9, 2015

Perhaps you recall my post on the detention centers that the immigration authorities are warehousing immigrant families in. Or perhaps you’ve read about them elsewhere.

They gotten some good media coverage. So the families — mostly mothers with young children who’ve fled violence in their countries — are out of the shadows now. But not out of the detention camps.

A letter national organizations recently sent to the President says that his administration has nearly 3,700 beds in the camps — a 4,300% increase (not a typo) from only a year ago. Highly doubtful the Department of Homeland Security would pay for so many beds if it thought most would be empty.

Some of the incarcerated families soon could have a chance to live with relatives, friends or in housing provided by faith-based groups while they await a final decision on their requests for asylum.

In late April, a federal judge issued a tentative ruling in favor of plaintiffs, who claimed that wholesale family detention violates a settlement the government agreed to long ago.

It obliges DHS to place minors in “the least restrictive setting possible.” The judge reportedly has interpreted this to mean that children — and their parents — can’t be held in detention camps unless they’re likely to flee or pose a risk to public safety.

DHS apparently read the handwriting on the wall. The Secretary recently announced “substantial changes” in the department’s practices. These include reviews of cases where families have been detained for more than 90 days to decide whether further detention is warranted.

Another change provides for the release of families who’ve persuaded the authorities they have a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries, i.e. are over the threshold to a decision on whether they can remain here indefinitely.

Families may, however, have to post bonds — much as people charged with crimes must post bonds to ensure they’ll show up for trial (or remain in jail or prison).

DHS has offered some detained families the bond option for awhile, but the amounts have been more than most could come up with — as high as $15,000. DHS will now supposedly take account of ability to pay.

But recall bonds are only for families who’ve passed the first major screening test. And advocates have said they’re unnecessary because virtually all families who’ve been released — as most used to be — show up for their hearings regardless.

So steps in the right direction. But still families held in those camps. And children damaged, perhaps irreparably.

How our government treats families who’ve fled from imminent dangers is ultimately the President’s call because what DHS does — and doesn’t — reflects his strategy on broader immigration issues.

Basically, I think, he will have to decide whether to continue trying to persuade recalcitrant Republicans to work with him on immigration reform. Perhaps he already has.

One notes, for example, his in-your-face expansion of reprieves from deportation for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children, as well as somewhat similar reprieves for undocumented parents whose children were born here or have since gained legal status.

Perhaps the recently reported (though not new) targeting of deportation actions belongs in this category too.

But if the President’s really given up, then it’s hard to see why the administration persists in stressing and re-stressing vigilance at our borders — at least insofar as penned-up refugee families are offered up as proof.

More broadly, it’s hard to see why the administration seems so bound and determined to prove that House Republicans are wrong when they claim they can’t trust him to enforce a new immigration law — the latest in a litany of excuses for their refusal to tackle a difficult and divisive issue.

Not saying the administration should just roll out the welcome mat to all tired, hungry and poor people seeking a better life here. Our country decided against that in the late 19th century.

But people who’ve every reason to fear death, rape and other violence shouldn’t suffer more because our leaders want to deliver a message to others who might also throw themselves on our tender mercies, rather than dutifully line up at a consulate back home.

Nor should they be made pawns in a political game that looks for all the world like a no-win till at least some time after the next election.