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A Policy Statement by the Society for Community Research and Action: Division 27 of the American Psychological Association
Statement on the Incarceration of Undocumented Immigrant Families
A Policy Statement by the Society for Community Research and Action: Division 27 of the American Psychological Association
Prepared by: Jessica Chicco, Patricia Esparza, M. Brinton Lykes, Fabricio E. Balcazar and Kevin Ferreira
In the summer of 2014, the U.S. government massively expanded its detention of immigrant families – particularly mothers with young children – at least in part mobilized by an effort to respond to an increase in the number of families apprehended at or near the U.S.-Mexico border. According to a recent report issued by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) (LIRS & WRC, 2014, October), since 2011, the number of families from Central America risking their lives to cross into the United States has increased steadily. Between October of 2013 and September of 2014, the U.S. government apprehended 68,334 children accompanied by a parent at the southwest border, representing a 361% increase in the number of family apprehensions over the previous fiscal year and more than half of all children who entered family detention in Fiscal Year 2014 were six years old or younger (LIRS & WRC, 2014, October). This increase parallels the deeply related increase of unaccompanied minors whose numbers spiked in the spring and summer of 2014. Both sets of migrants form part of a regional trend of increased requests for refugee status by for those fleeing the northern triangle of Central America (i.e., Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) and Mexico. As has been widely reported, these families and children are fleeing violence, domestic and/or family abuse, and dangerous gang-related activity from which their governments have been unable to protect them (Stinchcomb & Hersberg, 2014). In fact, The Guardian reported 45 cases of US deportees who have been murdered on their return to El Salvador, three in Guatemala and 35 in Honduras since January 2014 (Brodzinsky & Pilkington, 2015, October 12). While the United States upholds itself as a beacon of hope for those seeking freedom from persecution and oppression, the current U.S. immigration policies and their enforcement have detrimental effects on migrant adults, children, families and communities (Brabeck, Lykes & Hunter, 2014).
The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) practice of detaining families on a “no bond, no release” policy has been widely criticized and successfully challenged in court. Foley (2015, June 2) reported that in May, 33 of the 44 senators in the Democratic caucus wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson advocating the abolition of immigrant family detention except in extreme circumstances. The letter followed a similar one written by 136 of the 188 House Democrats the previous week, as well as numerous pleas from human rights groups to eliminate the practice. A federal judge in the District of Columbia, in the case of RILR v. Johnson (Civil action No. 15-11—D.D.C. February 20, 2015) issued an order prohibiting DHS from “detaining class members [of families who are found to have a credible fear of persecution in their home country and are eligible for release] for the purpose of deterring future immigration to the United States and from considering deterrence of such immigration as a factor in such custody determinations” (ACLU, 2015). Similar critiques have been mounted against the unusually – and in many cases prohibitively - high bonds imposed by DHS for families (LIRS & WRC, 2014).
We assert that there is no way to humanely detain children and families. As set forth in more detail below, we:
The use of family detention in the U.S. has been marked by abuse. The first family detention facility, which operates to this day, was opened in 2001 in Pennsylvania. The U.S. government dramatically increased its family detention space in 2006 by opening the 512-bed T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas, operated by Corrections Corporations of America, the largest private for-profit correctional corporation in the country. Children housed there were required to wear prison garb and families were detained in small cells with little privacy and were prohibited from keeping food, toys, or writing utensils in their cells (LIRS & WRC, 2007). Significant advocacy and coordinated community efforts, including local and national protests and lawsuits based on reports of severe abuse and poor living conditions, forced the closing of this facility in September 2009 (Bernstein, 2009).
However, in response to the increased influx of women and children from Central America in 2014 – many of whom are seeking asylum and related protections – the Obama administration once again began detaining families in large facilities. The Karnes Detention Center in Texas began holding families in late summer 2014. Operated by the GEO GROUP Inc., another for-profit correctional corporation, it currently holds approximately 520 women and children. The GEO Group has also broken ground on a project to double the bed space at that site (CARA, 2015). In 2014, the DHS also operated a makeshift facility in Artesia, New Mexico, holding approximately 650 women and children. The facility was closed late that year, at least in part because of the multiple allegations of abuse and mistreatment (see below), but many of its detainees were transferred to a newly built family detention center in Dilley, Texas (Coleman, 2014, November 18).
The new facility in Dilley, for which the DHS solicited bids despite significant opposition from immigrants’ rights groups, faith-based, civil rights, human rights, professional organizations –including the American Psychological Association– and criminal justice reform organizations (see Letter to President Obama, September 25, 2014), is operated by the Correction Corporation of America, the same company that ran the now-closed Hutto detention center. The facility was holding 819 mothers and 1,000 children by early June 2015, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Foley, 2015, June 19). Despite improved physical conditions, the Dilley detention center is also a lock-down facility. Moreover, it is less than two hours away from the Karnes detention center, putting even more strain on the limited and already overwhelmed legal service providers in the area (LIRS & WRC, 2014).
In addition to inadequate access to child care, medical and mental health care, and legal assistance, the LIRS and WRC report (2014) pointed out that family detention remains rife for abuse – especially given the vulnerability of this population. In October 2014, the Karnes facility was at the center of allegations of sexual assault by guards threatening or bribing detained women (CNN News, 2014). Representatives from non-governmental organizations and attorneys who visited the Artesia facility in New Mexico before its closure reported several significant concerns, including malnutrition and severe weight loss of children, the isolation of the facility (approximately 200 miles from the nearest large city, which makes access to legal services extremely difficult), lack of educational services for the detained children, lack of access to phones, and the absence of adequate private spaces for the women to meet with attorneys, thus forcing them to recount physical and sexual abuse to their attorneys in front of their children (Detention Watch Network, 2014, September).
Families enter detention after being arrested by local law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The families are held in these detention centers while they await deportation hearings. While research on the family detention experience is limited, especially in the U.S., the information available suggests that it has direct negative effects on detained families while indirectly affecting the wider community.
The process and duration of detention can be stressful for every member of a family. Children of parents who have been detained tend to experience feelings of depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress symptoms (Brabeck, Lykes & Hunter, 2014; Chaudry, et al., 2010; Suárez-Orozco, Bang, & Kim, 2011). Researchers have discovered similar findings in the mental health of detained asylum seekers (Physicians for Human Rights & Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, 2003). These findings parallel research in other countries (e.g., Australian Human Rights Commission, 2014). Interviews with 14 adults and 20 children at a remote immigration detention center in Australia revealed that each person met criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder at the time of the interview (Steel et al., 2004). Furthermore, prolonged detention has been shown to have a long-term effect on the psychological health of refugees which persists after the detention (Steel et al., 2004; Steel et al., 2006). Again at an Australian detention center, among the 16 adults and 20 children interviewed, all of the children had at least one parent with a psychiatric disorder (Mares & Jureidini, 2004). Of the 10 children (ages 6-17 years old) that were able to undergo a psychological assessment, 100% met criteria for both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression, 80% exhibited self-harming behaviors, and 70% exhibited symptoms of an anxiety disorder. The children also reported difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, little motivation to study, a sense of hopelessness, overwhelming boredom, thoughts of death and dying, and recurrent para-suicidal ideation (Mares & Jureidini, 2004).
One of the points made in the Letter to President Obama by the NGOs (September 25, 2014) in opposition to family detention is that imprisonment harms children's health. Their physical and psychological development suffers during detention, and such harms can be long-lasting. Being held in a prison-like setting, even for a short period of time, can cause psychological trauma for children and increase their risk factor for future mental disorders (Cleveland, Rousseau, & Kronick, 2012, April). According to Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture (2003), detention can also exacerbate the trauma experienced by both children and adults who have fled violence in their home countries – precisely the population detained at Artesia and Karnes. Additionally, detention damages the family structure by stripping parents of their role as arbiter and decision-maker in the family unit, confusing children and undermining child-rearing (LIRS & WRC, 2007, February). Foley (2015, June 19) reports an interview with Luis Zayas, who has made multiple visits to the Karnes facility and reported that many children there showed signs of depression and anxiety. He indicated that detention can be detrimental to a child's brain development and emotional intelligence. His recent book (Zayas, 2015) examines the negative impact of the deportation of undocumented immigrants on their citizen-children who are left behind, that is, “deportation orphans.” Zayas’ research and findings reported by those who have psychologically evaluated children held in detention centers throughout the U.S. should help to increase public awareness about the impact of current policies and practices on children’s well-being.
In addition to research focused explicitly on detained families, researchers have found that greater vulnerability to the threat of deportation and detention has been associated with negative impacts on the mental health of parents and children (Brabeck & Xu, 2010). In terms of parental impact, greater levels of vulnerability were related to negative emotional well-being, decreased financial stability, and poor parent-child relations. Similarly, children with vulnerable parents were more likely to experience decreased emotional well-being and poor academic performance (Brabeck & Xu, 2010). Unfortunately children’s voices have been notably absent from this literature, thus limiting advocates’ understanding of children’s lived experiences of detention and the meanings they make about these experiences. Brabeck, Lykes and Hunter (2014) have documented the effects of detention and deportation on children that are separated from their detained parents. The authors argue that the loss of a deported person’s income can lead to housing insecurity, food insecurity, psychological distress, and slipping from low income into poverty. Debry (2012) added that a parent’s deportation can lead to a permanent change in family structure and in extreme cases, family dissolution. Brabeck et al. (2014) call for more research that offers children an opportunity to tell their stories in their own voices. Such research would contribute importantly to recommendations for better treatment of families directly impacted by detention policies. In fact, research on how these different policies affect children and families is important: both to identify the harm caused, and potentially, if other approaches/alternatives to detention are implemented, to study the effects of ATDs.
Although research to date has focused primarily on the direct psychological effects of incarceration, detention and deportation on families, the above policies and practices have identifiable effects on the wider U.S.-based migrant community. Maya-Salas, Ayón, and Gurrola (2013) conducted a series of focus groups with undocumented immigrants and found that these individuals and/or their children share everyday feelings of isolation, powerlessness, frustration, fear, stress and chronic trauma. Major themes included: (a) “Risking our lives” – participants shared the dangers involved in migrating to the United States; (b) “looking out the window” – participants reported that they live in a constant state of fear of being arrested and deported, which significantly restricts how they live their lives; and (c) “we are traumatized” – participants shared the effects of trauma –often manifested in fear, intense nervousness, and depression that all members of the family experienced. However, parents were especially concerned about the trauma their children were experiencing.
Research has documented how the presence of ICE and/or the threat of detention or deportation can cause significant negative psychological outcomes in a migrant community. Fear of ICE and the threat of detention was found to have shaped the behavior of the people in Lowell, MA as evidenced by increases in crime, fewer filed reports of crimes, direct and indirect health issues and increased instability within businesses, schools, and available human services (Sládková, Garcia-Mangado, & Reyes-Quinteros, 2012). Furthermore, local community organizations were also impacted in that they lost some program participants, had limited resources to address deportation issues, experienced greater financial burdens, and had to add to the workload of staff (Sládková, et al., 2012). Thus, the mere threat or possibility of detention or deportation has been found to have deleterious effects on the well-being of parents, children and the communities in which they live (Dreby, 2012; Maya-Salas, Ayón, & Gurrola, 2013). It has also been documented that fears of deportation can limit immigrants’ participation in various psychosocial programs (Guerra & Knox, 2008; Knox et al., 2011) and prompt immigrant day laborers to tolerate discrimination and isolation (Negi, 2013).
In addition to the multiple negative effects on migrant families – including rupture of parental child relationships, psychosocial risk, etc. documented above – detention and incarceration are neither the least restrictive nor the most efficient or cost effective means of ensuring parental appearance before immigration officials. In fact, the policy of incarcerating families runs counter to principles of respect for human dignity and protection of children, especially those seeking refugee status (i.e., UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 2012; Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), 2014). Further, international human rights law strongly disfavors the use of detention and rejects it completely in the case of children. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child stated in 2012 that detaining children constitutes a violation of a child’s rights and always contravenes the principle of the best interest of the child. Moreover, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (2015), it will cost taxpayers an estimated $298 per bed per day or approximately $261 million annually to operate just one of the facilities (Dilley) described above; while alternatives to detention are estimated to cost 17 cents to $17 per person per day (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2014); including intensive monitoring at a cost of $10.55 per day (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2014).
Alternatives to Detention (ATD). In many instances, detained migrants may be released on their own recognizance or on a bond set by an immigration official. As set forth in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Immigration Court Practice Manual (2009/2013), immigration judges may then review bond decisions based on an assessment of the individual’s flight risk and danger to the community. Migrants’ rights to such procedures are underscored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR, 2012) emphasis on the importance of assessing necessity and proportionality in each refugee’s individual case (Field & Edwards, 2006). Unfortunately, many of these families have been detained on a “no bond, no release” policy, or immigration judges have set bonds at uncharacteristically high levels (LIRS & WRC, 2014). Both of these practices de facto incarcerate women and their children in detention centers. A reasonable bond amount may allow families to post the bond money and be released from detention while they pursue requests for protection in immigration court.
In addition to these clearly delineated release options, there are a number of ATD frameworks that may include release subject to specific reporting conditions, including, for example, a regular check-in time with immigration (in person or by phone, weekly, monthly, or in another frequency). ATDs have been widely reported as effective. In FY 2010, the federal government’s ATD programs yielded a 93.8 percent appearance rate for immigration hearings (LIRS, 2012). Immigrant rights advocates typically press for no conditions to release, and for the imposition of a monitoring program of some kind only in those instances in which there are concerns around flight risk that can be equally mitigated with these cheaper and more humane ATDs (Costello & Kaytaz, 2013). For example, the Vera Institute’s 3-year pilot program funded by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service showed low absconding rates and high compliance with an intensive community supervision program in comparison to a group on bail or parole (Sullivan, Mottino, Khashu, & O’Neil, 2000). While the research literature distinguishes the effectiveness among ATD programs for refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants (Costello & Kaytaz, 2013; International Detention Coalition, 2011), the Vera Institute Appearance Assistance Program demonstrated high appearance rates above 90% across migrant groups in removal proceedings who participated in the intensive supervision programs, and furthermore showed that certain groups of migrants achieved high appearance rates without the need for intensive supervision. (Sullivan, Mottino, Khashu, & O’Neil, 2000). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2012) reports that supervision or reporting procedures that are overly burdensome will reduce cooperation. This research confirms that treating migrants with dignity and respect, as well as providing them with clear and timely information, increases cooperation and compliance (Costello & Kaytaz, 2013; UNHCR, 2011). Thus, these findings suggest that ATD programs are highly recommended for undocumented migrant families, and especially those seeking refuge in the U.S.
Alternatives to detention can also include more intensive monitoring, though these more restrictive conditions should only be used when absolutely necessary (UNHCR, 2012). In particular, seemingly punitive methods such as Global Positioning System (GPS) electronic monitoring devices (i.e. ankle bracelets) typically require hours of charging each day, restrict an individual’s movement, and have been described by those who have worn them as demeaning while also stigmatizing them as criminals vis-à-vis their children who must watch them recharge their monitors on a daily basis (UNCHR, 2012). Such GPS devices should only be used sparingly if at all as an alternative to detention. In many instances, ICE contracts with private companies to provide these ATD monitoring services. The cost is, of course, just a fraction of that of detention.
Finally, the DHS announced a new alternative to detention program in mid-September 2015 that may allow for the release of 1500 families (May, 2015). While the use of alternatives to detention is welcomed, the contract for the pilot program, called Family Case Management Program, has been awarded to the GEO Group – the same for-profit correctional corporation that has been widely criticized for poor detention conditions (CARA, 2015). Given the reputation of the contractor, there is considerable skepticism that the program will constitute what are proposed below as feasible “best practices.”
Advocacy for Better Practices. ATDs have been documented to be effective and efficient practices for ensuring migrant family compliance with ICE requirements, particularly for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. In addition, community support programs – not currently funded by ICE – provide case management and referrals to legal and social services professionals for non-detained individuals. Edwards (2011) reports that such support helps people understand their legal obligations and improves court appearance rates and compliance with final case outcomes, while minimizing the damage to their mental and physical health and the disruption to their families and communities caused by institutional detention. As importantly, these initiatives offer migrants easier access to the needed legal and human service resources required to advocate for themselves before immigration judges and/or in asylum processes, thus supporting their protagonist role. In fact, detention and lack of representation significantly affect an individual’s ability to obtain immigration relief. According to the New York Study Group on Immigrant Representation (2011), only 3 percent of detained, unrepresented immigrants in New York reached a successful outcome in their cases; thirteen percent of unrepresented non-detained immigrants reached a successful outcome in their cases; and the number jumped to 74 percent when the non-detained immigrant was legally represented.
Finally, the American Psychological Association (APA) has been proactive through its Public Interest Government Relations Office (PI-GRO) in expressing to congressional leaders, the president, and the general public, the negative impact of racial profiling, mental health concerns facing recent immigrants, the stigmatization of immigrants, the trauma of family separation, and the negative effects of the detention and deportation process on immigrants and their families among several other issues that have been examined (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Regarding its opposition to family detention, the APA has co-signed two separate letters to President Obama, the first one in September 25, 2014 which listed 168 NGOs (American Psychological Association, 2014) and the second in June 15, 2015 which listed 97 service providers, faith, civil rights, labor, professional and other policy and advocacy organizations (American Psychological Association, 2015). In addition, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) has also released multiple policy resources regarding immigration, including a recent one (SPSSI, 2014) that addresses the significant economic, psychological, and humanitarian costs of detention, deportation, and surveillance.
The Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) request that President Obama directs the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to STOP THE CURRENT PRACTICE OF FAMILY DETENTION and promote reasonable and humane alternatives to incarceration of mothers and children that guarantee the human rights of these migrant families. In addition, SCRA calls upon:
(1) Be considered for release on their own recognizance to family or community members. If release on their own recognizance is not available, they should:
(2) Be considered for release to an alternative to detention program (with the least restrictive monitoring necessary to ensure appearance at future hearing or compliance with reporting requirements). ATD programs can include community-based supervision, including meaningful case management by trained professionals. Programs can also include phone or in-person check-ins at regular intervals, though such check-ins should not be so onerous as to significantly disrupt migrants’ life (by, for example, requiring that the individual travel a long distance for frequent in-person check-ins). Electronic monitoring through the use of GPS monitoring devices or similar technology should only be used when absolutely necessary.
2. The Department of Justice to ensure that immigration courts consider these families for no-bond or reasonable bonds that adequately reflect the individual’s danger to the community and flight risk if released on their own recognizance or participation in an ATD program is not available.
3. The Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institute of Mental Health, and State agencies to fund research with parents and children facing immigration detention in the U.S. to:
b. Document the effects and outcomes of ATD programs.
4. The American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Work, the National Lawyers Association, and legal and other professional organizations to educate members who could work with migrants and their families and communities in order to address some of their service needs and legal challenges. In particular, we recommend:
Having reviewed the available scientific evidence on the negative effects of family incarceration and the alternatives to detention, we believe these actions will help alleviate the negative impact the current U.S. policy of incarceration is having on the wellbeing and mental health of migrant family members and their communities.
Help Raise Awareness
SCRA has prepared a two-page document (PDF) that its members and other allies can download and share in order to help raise awareness of this policy issue. You may download it here.
Additional Resources and Information
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Facilities. A letter signed by 168 NGOs sent to President Obama, Sept. 25, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/about/gr/pi/news/2014/immigrant-detention.aspx
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Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 496-505. doi: 10.1037/ort0000011
Brabeck, K., & Xu, Q. (2010). The impact of detention and deportation on Latino immigrant children and families: A quantitative exploration. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 32, 341-361. doi: 10.1177/0739986310374053
Brodzinsky, S. & Pilkington, E. (2015, October 12). US government deporting Central American migrants to their deaths. The Guardian. Retrieved from:
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Foley, E. (2015, June 2). Backlash Against Mass Family Immigrant Detention Grows As Senate Democrats Pile On. Huffington Post Politics. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/02/family-immigrant-detention_n_7495282.html
Foley, E. (2015, June 19). Critics Say Amenities Don't Make Up For Psychological Damage Done At Family Immigrant Detention Centers. Huffington Post Politics.
Guerra, N.G., & Knox, L. (2008). How Culture Impacts the Dissemination and Implementation of Innovation: A Case Study of the Families and Schools Together Program (FAST) for Preventing Violence with Immigrant Latino Youth. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41(3), 304-313. doi:10.1007/s10464-008-9161-4
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Knox, L., Guerra, N.G., William, K.R., & Toro, R. (2011). Preventing children’s aggression in immigrant Latino families: A mixed methods evaluation of the families and schools together program. American Journal of Community Psychology, 48 (1/2), 65-76. doi: 10.1007/s10464-010-9411-0
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Maya-Salas, L., Ayón, C., & Gurrola, M. (2013). “Estamos traumados:” The effect of anti-immigrant sentiment and policies on the mental health of Mexican immigrant families. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(8), 1005–1020. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21589
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