The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has joined the call for the Obama administration to release thousands of immigrant women and children held in detention centers, finding their confinement inhumane and a violation of the migrants’ constitutional rights.
The 250-page report is another stinging blow to President Barack Obama’s immigration policies. It raises questions about what the government will do to address the large number of children and families who continue to come to the United States after fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
There are certain things that need to change and they need to change now.
Martin Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
The Obama administration is currently holding an estimated 2,450 parents and children at three detention facilities, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania.
In its lengthy report – which includes dissenting views – the commission blasted federal officials for ignoring serious medical conditions, denying detainees the right to practice religion, interfering with their legal representation and possibly abusing children.
Chairman Martin Castro called the conditions “torture-like” after finishing the investigation. The research included visiting the Karnes County, Texas, family detention center, where mothers launched a hunger strike over conditions and a teenage mother attempted suicide. Castro, the panel’s first Latino chairman, was appointed to the commission by Obama.
“To actually go and talk to some of these moms. See these kids and look in their eyes,” said Castro, a Chicago attorney who leads his own consulting firm. “See that despondence. See that fear. See that anguish. That’s not who we are as a country. And we need to end that as soon as possible.”
The commission’s report follows a scathing court decision in which a federal judge gave the Obama administration until Oct. 23 to begin releasing hundreds of migrant mothers and children who have been locked up in government family detention centers as they await their asylum hearings.
Last week, the commission urged Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson not to appeal the ruling.
Homeland Security officials said they’re reviewing the commission’s report.
Under public and media scrutiny, the department has made significant changes to the family residential policy in recent months, including announcing the end of long-term detention.
Marsha Catron, DHS spokeswoman, said the detention facilities are being transitioned into “short-term processing centers.” Families who show they have a reasonable fear of persecution if returned to their home country can be released while they await their asylum hearings.
“DHS takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care,” she said. “The department is committed to ensuring that individuals housed in all of our centers have the proper care and appropriate resources.”
The facilities have been the subject of intense public and media scrutiny. There have been allegations of poor conditions and sexual abuse. A former social worker at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas told McClatchy that migrant mothers and children were placed in isolation after complaining about poor conditions.
But Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials say the detainees are well cared for. The facilities have playgrounds, playrooms and televisions. Mothers can take Zumba exercise classes.
Compared to what some of these women and children were facing in their home country, Karnes must look like paradise.
Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Johnson and administration attorneys have argued they need to use the family detention centers to respond to unexpected migration surges like last year’s wave of migrants from Central America. Officials cited Executive Office for Immigration Review statistics that showed 40 percent of migrants released last year did not show up for court dates.
The civil rights commission report was not unanimously supported. Two members of commission criticized the report’s findings for being unreliable and biased. Commissioner Peter Kirsanow, a Cleveland labor lawyer who also served on the National Labor Relations Board, called the report “fatally flawed” and cited a Homeland Security inspector general report in February that found no evidence of sexual abuse and harassment at the Karnes center.
Commissioner Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, said the report needs to be taken “with a grain of salt.” She said the majority of the commissioners appear to have made their conclusions before even embarking on their investigation.
Heriot joined the commissioners on a visit to the Karnes detention center. She said she met with mothers and children who were well fed and well cared for.
Heriot agreed that federal authorities need to do what they could to prevent long-term detention, but she said often that’s out of authorities’ control. She cited a backlog in the courts and pointed out that sometimes it’s the women’s attorneys who are asking the court for more time to gather evidence about their clients’ cases.
Citing the Executive Office for Immigration Review statistics, Heriot said the government needs to do what it can to ensure the families show up at their court dates.
“It is perfectly legal and perfectly appropriate to detain someone if you’re concerned that they won’t show up for their hearing,” Heriot said.