In Search of a Humane Immigration Policy

Reports that the Biden administration is considering reviving the detention of immigrant families are alarming and should be a wakeup call to anyone concerned with the health and well-being of families. There is widespread consensus among pediatricians, social workers and psychologists, and other experts that family detention is a harmful practice that can have lasting effects on child development and the health and wellbeing of families. For many children and caregivers, the trauma of detention compounds trauma they have experienced in their home countries and along their journey to the United States. Forcing families into these circumstances who are seeking safety and opportunity and exercising their legal right to claim asylum is unconscionable. It also has rippling effects on families and communities across the country, as many asylum-seekers are joining family members who have been here for years—spouses, parents, siblings, and extended family—and hope to make a life for themselves in the United States.

The Center for the Study of Social Policy has traveled to the southern border, visited family detention facilities, and spoken to families who have recently arrived and the service providers who support them. Families routinely experience extreme stress and lasting trauma on their journey to the United States, even when they have not spent extended periods in detention. For example, Sandra came to the United States with her twelve-year old daughter who was “already traumatized” because of the unsafe living conditions in their home country of Guatemala. They spent a day in immigration detention before taking a bus to join Sandra’s husband outside of Washington, DC. Sandra wanted to talk to her daughter about their shared experience and help her daughter process her emotions, but could not because she was still so traumatized by the experience herself—even with their relatively quick “processing” by immigration officers at the border. As Sandra explained, “I couldn’t talk about this because I would start crying, I say it’s a nightmare for us.”

Sandra’s experience is not unusual, given that the immigration system at the southern border is not designed to treat families with dignity and respect, but was built instead over the course of decades to exclude individuals portrayed as not belonging in the United States by politicians and journalists using racist and xenophobic language. The immigration system that has resulted fails the basic test of what a functioning government system should look like, as the high degree of discretion allowed to workers, along with the lack of transparency and accountability, mean that threats to the well-being of individuals who interact with the system too often go unchecked.

The trauma families experience along their journeys and when interacting with the immigration system at the border is only exacerbated by lengthier detention. Dr. Luis Zayas, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on child and adolescent mental health, interviewed families in immigration detention facilities and found “regressions in children’s behavior; suicidal ideation in teenagers; nightmares and night terrors; and pathological levels of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair.” In addition, the research is clear that detaining families does not deter future immigrants from seeking refuge in the United States, as some proponents of detention argue, and case management can be very effective as an alternative to detention to ensure families’ court cases are resolved in a timely manner—while protecting the well-being of families. Even the Department of Homeland Security’s own Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers concluded 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.”

President Biden rightly ended the practice of family detention upon taking office, but has since taken a number of steps that threaten the well-being of immigrant families, including issuing a proposed rule that would limit the lawful right of families to seek asylum in the United States. Before inflicting further harm, the administration should stop and recognize how families like Sandra’s, and communities across the country, are impacted every day by its decisions. The immigration system is not built to respect the humanity of the families who pass through it. But policymakers are obligated to recognize their humanity, and develop systems and policies that protect the health and well-being of all families. That should start right now, by declaring once and for all that family detention is not and never will be a legitimate policy response to immigration.