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Ahead of International Women’s Day, Biden Considers Locking Up Migrant Families

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WASHINGTON – The headlines are explosive. “U.S. Is Said to Consider Reinstating Detention of Migrant Families” (New York Times). “White House mulls return to migrant family detention” (The Hill). “La Casa Blanca considera retomar la detención de familias migrantes en la frontera” (Telemundo). Plain language made explosive due to the implications of the Biden administration putting entire families in jail for months or years, like the Trump administration did. 

(See “Sources Documenting the Harms of Family Detention,” compiled by the National Immigrant Justice Center.)

Reaction from advocates, who have been through this before, is equally explosive. 

“As the world prepares to honor International Women’s Day, President Biden is planning to lock up asylum seeking mothers and their babies,” said Bilal Askaryar, Interim Campaign Manager of the #WelcomeWithDignity campaign for asylum rights. “The administration should stop letting its opposition dictate policies, and join communities around the country who are proudly welcoming people to their new homes. The challenge is not refugees seeking asylum at our doorstep, it is how we respond.

He added: “We often say we’d do anything for our loved ones; people seeking asylum already have. My family fled Afghanistan when I was a child, and we were lucky enough to be granted asylum. That’s why it is so painful for me to see the administration treat people and families this way. If my family had come a few years later, this could have been us. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have jail be my first ‘home’ in this country I thought would be safe.”

“Something is terribly wrong or broken when a country thinks it’s okay to imprison children and their families for desperately seeking refuge,” said Pedro De Velasco, Director of Education and Advocacy, The Kino Border Initiative. “Reinstating detention for families crossing to seek protection is cruel, heartless, and a step backwards in creating a more humane immigration system and restoring asylum, as President Biden promised during his campaign. It is not fair to punish families for the decisions they are forced to make due to lack of access at the port of entry (other than CBPOne app), and all the challenges and inequities that the application entails.”

“Family detention is a horrific practice that inflicts lasting harm to children and families. This is a fact, recognized by both the medical community and the U.S. government,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director, National Immigrant Justice Center. “President Biden knew this when he denounced it as a candidate and stopped jailing families upon taking office. Resurrecting family detention means knowingly inflicting life-long harm on children and their parents, and violating U.S. and international human rights law, while failing to address the reasons people have been forced to flee their homes.”

“Refugee families fleeing persecution should not be locked up,” said Professor Karen Musalo, Director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS). “They have a legal right to seek asylum at our border. Punishing them for exercising that right is deeply harmful, and flies in the face of our laws and treaty obligations to refugees. Under the Obama administration, I served on an expert advisory committee to the Department of Homeland Security on the practice of family detention. Our foremost recommendation was that detention is—in the clear majority of cases—not appropriate and never in the best interest of children. We unanimously called on the agency to instead invest in community-based case management services to support families as they pursue their legal claims. On the campaign trail, President Biden agreed with us. It is profoundly disappointing that his administration would even consider reviving such an inhumane and immoral policy. As with so many other anti-asylum measures by this administration, it appears to be yet another cowardly attempt to appease anti-immigrant constituencies, a foolish political calculus that has never paid off for this president. The administration must immediately shelve this plan.” 

Said Kate Clark, senior director of immigration services for Jewish Family Service of San Diego: “The Biden Administration’s consideration to reinstate family detention—a practice it openly rejected throughout the campaign trail—is an abhorrent betrayal of its commitments to rebuild our nation’s broken immigration system and implement compassionate, humane policies. Through our work, we have seen firsthand and heard countless reports of how cruel and inhumane the conditions in these detention facilities can be. To force any person, let alone a child, to endure these conditions is reprehensible. This latest news, combined with the Administration’s recent proposal to enact an asylum ban, completely contradicts the promises that were made when President Biden took office. We demand the Administration reconsider and put an immediate end to both proposed actions.”

“We keep going in circles. The practice of family detention is cruel, unnecessary, and runs counter to our values as a nation of welcome, and as humanitarian leaders in the global community. Enough is enough. We are asking the Biden administration to recommit itself to the promises that they made, and refrain from implementing any further attempts to stymy access to seeking asylum,” said Nili Sarit Yossinger, Executive Director of Refugee Congress.

“Family detention—and immigrant detention in DHS custody—is immoral and wrong. Faith communities have long-denounced the cruel practice of family detention that should be viewed as a betrayal of our spirit of welcome. Any effort to restore harmful family detention practices would be a callous political move that serves as a punitive deterrence mechanism and undermines our moral obligations to welcome. This policy would cause direct harm to families and children fleeing horrors and danger,” said Meredith Owen, Director of Policy and Advocacy at CWS. “We call on the Biden administration to refute these reports, make a commitment to uphold our values of compassion and welcome, and dedicate resources to protect the vulnerable, not persecute them.” 

“Caging families was an inhumane response to migration when the Trump and Obama administrations did it, and is an inhumane response if the Biden administration revives it,” said Basma Alawee, Director of We Are All America. “We are beyond mortified that the same Biden administration that once condemned family detention is now hypocritically, actively considering it. We urge the administration to not go full Trump in detaining families and banning asylum, and instead seek humane and sustainable solutions that recognize the dignity of families exercising their international human right to seek asylum and other forms of humanitarian relief.”

“Family detention causes irreparable harm and inflicts unconscionable suffering. Every kind of expert—legal, medical, and directly impacted people themselves—has thoroughly denounced the policy. If the Biden administration goes through with reinstating family detention, it will betray not only our communities, but also the very principles the administration claimed to espouse when President Biden took office,” said Sirine Shebaya, Executive Director of the National Immigration Project. “As President Biden himself said not three years ago, ‘Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately. This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: Families belong together.’ It is that simple. We urge the administration to remember its commitment to compassionate, humane immigration policies and to end the use of detention once and for all.”

Katharina Obser, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) added: “It is unconscionable that the Biden administration is considering a return to a costly and inhumane practice that experts ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics, government physicians tasked with inspecting the facilities, and even ICE’s own advisory committee on family detention said should be ended. WRC, alongside our many partners, has documented  in detail, based on numerous visits to such facilities for over 10 years, that there is simply no humane way to detain families.  

“But there are smart and humane approaches. Case management—like the discontinued Family Case Management Program or current Case Management Pilot Program—can support families as they successfully navigate the asylum process and find stability with their families and communities. The Biden administration should abandon any plans for family detention, and reaffirm its previous commitment to build a humane and fair asylum system.

“As an organization that previously sued to shed light on the cruel practice of detaining families seeking safety in our country, we are outraged by reports that the Biden administration is weighing its reinstatement,” said Kica Matos, Executive Vice President of Programs and Strategy at the National Immigration Law Center. “This shameful and immoral practice, which President Biden has rightly condemned and discontinued, inflicts lasting harm on children and families. It goes against the values we aspire to as a nation, while doing nothing to advance a humane and orderly immigration system. Reviving family detention sets us back and sends a misguided message that criminalizing those seeking refuge is the right solution. It would be a grave error and a new low for an administration already down a backwards path of embracing failed deterrence policies at the border.”

“The Biden administration must end its attempts to ban and punish people seeking asylum. As a candidate, Joe Biden rightly insisted families not be detained and his administration rightly stopped subjecting families to immigration detention.” said Eleanor Acer, Human Rights First’s Senior Director for Refugee Protection. “Sending families to immigration jails would violate human rights, waste government resources, and inflict harm, suffering, and trauma on children and families. Instead of jailing and banning people seeking asylum, the Biden administration should safeguard access to asylum and welcome people seeking refuge in this country.”

“Anyone who has visited these family detention centers knows that they are jails for kids. To paraphrase Joe Biden, we can’t believe we have to say this, but families belong together, and should be free. If the Biden administration moves forward with this proposal, it will become a cruel new nadir in a legacy that has been filled with disappointments,” said Adela de la Torre, Deputy Director of Justice Action Center. “Cruelty may not be the Biden administration’s goal, but it is certainly the byproduct of their current immigration strategy. And the harms to children and families are no less devastating whether the administration implementing the policy is Republican or Democratic.”  

“Reinstating family detention is the antithesis of welcoming immigrants with dignity,” said Laura St. John, Legal Director at the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. “The fact that President Biden is even considering this is appalling, especially after he promised a more humane approach to immigration during his campaign. Immigration detention is traumatizing, and detaining families will inflict life-long harm on these children and families. To even consider it, knowing the consequences, is beyond the pale. Detaining families is a human rights violation and breaks both U.S. and international law. We call on President Biden to remember the promises he made to people seeking protection in the United States and to the American people, and abandon this plan immediately.” 

“The Central American Resource Center – CARECEN SF is horrified to hear the Biden administration is considering a return to the use of family detention. A humanitarian crisis requires a humanitarian response—not a return to detaining families in ICE detention centers. CARECEN SF lawyers provided legal help to families detained under Trump and Obama, and saw children malnourished in custody, crying in pain due to lack of appropriate medical attention, and emotionally scarred by seeing their parents subjugated and dehumanized. The solution is simple—give families seeking protection paperwork advising them to go to court and seek asylum. Detention is a waste of money and lives. Let’s be clear; ICE is in the business of enforcement and removal, not child-centered humanitarian responses. Even Biden recognized that when he shut down family detention facilities at the beginning of his term. To resurrect family detention now is cruel and unnecessary, and we will not stay silent. We must choose people over politics,” said Sarah Gavigan, Senior Staff Attorney at CARECEN SF.

“The news that the Biden administration is considering reviving the practice of throwing children and families in ICE detention centers is disturbing. It is yet another profound disappointment that the Biden administration is looking to some of the darkest days of the Trump administration for ideas on how to meet families seeking asylum with cruelty rather than dignity. The fact that this administration, which ran on promises to restore humanity at the border, is considering such a morally bankrupt plan proves how far their sense of how to treat the most vulnerable among us has fallen,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, Executive Director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center. 

“Families belong together—and free,” said Abby Maxman, President & CEO of Oxfam America. “Not only is detaining migrant families inhumane; it actually does nothing to deter migration. This administration’s attempts to punish asylum seekers—from reviving Trump’s asylum bans to detaining families—have only compounded suffering, while undermining the administration’s efforts to fix our broken immigration system and champion a human rights-centered foreign policy. We can—and must—build an immigration system that is fair, humane, and gives people a meaningful chance to seek protection in the United States.”

“We are outraged to hear that the Biden administration is considering reinstating the detention of immigrant families,” said Kristin Kumpf, Director of Human Migration and Mobility at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). “The administration has broken numerous promises to create a more humane and just immigration system. It is immoral and inhumane to lock up families in detention facilities instead of welcoming families seeking refuge. We call on the Biden administration to offer dignified solutions for immigrant families, instead of inflicting more pain.”

“We are shocked and disappointed to hear that the Biden administration is even considering the use of family detention as part of its broader border policy,” said Joan Rosenhauer, Executive Director, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA. “Under no circumstances should children and their families be detained by the United States government for any length of time. Family detention violates the dignity and human rights of children and goes against the basic tenets of Catholic Social Teaching. We call on the Biden administration to develop and enact policies that prioritize the well-being, safety, and protection of all migrants and asylum seekers.”

“Even if you don’t care about the cruelty of detaining migrant families—apparently a too-common position in Washington—the proposal still makes no sense,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It would cost nearly $350 per family per day just to have enough space to inflict suffering on roughly 8% of the current family migrant population. That’s incredibly expensive, and hardly a deterrent. What would that seek to achieve? ‘Cruelty for its own sake’ must never be the goal.”

“The news that the Biden administration may reinstate family detention is yet another gutting reversal on campaign promises—and the consequences to human rights could be dire,” said Alex Miller, director of the Immigration Justice Campaign at the American Immigration Council. “Our team supported parents and children locked in family detention centers under prior administrations. We saw the extreme humanitarian impacts of family detention firsthand. As the potential end of Title 42 causes political tensions to peak, it is distressing that the administration is considering once again reverting to the Trumpian toolbox. Instead of resuscitating failed and harmful deterrence-based policies, we should be building up humanitarian infrastructure to process asylum seekers humanely and efficiently.”

“It has been long-proven that family detention inflicts irreparable harm to children and their parents,” said Archi Pyati, CEO at the Tahirih Justice Center. “The reinstatement of this cruel and inhumane practice—which we fought hard to end under the Obama administration—will be directly harmful to survivors of gender-based violence, and a violation of U.S. and international human rights law. This is a disheartening step in the wrong direction from this administration.” 

“The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas are appalled that the Biden administration is considering reinstating family detention,” said Maggie Conley, Director of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team. “This cruel and inhumane policy severely impacts the most vulnerable—children who have already experienced major trauma. What does this say about our values as a nation? We can do much better than this.”

“Reports that the administration is considering bringing back family detention is déjà vu all over again,” said Naomi Steinberg, Vice President, U.S. Policy and Advocacy, HIAS. “We’ve been here before. We’ve seen how this goes. We’ve seen how family detention does nothing to stop people from seeking protection, and we’ve seen the extreme suffering forced upon children who are detained, with or without their families. The Biden administration does not need to go down this road. There is time to put an end to these conversations, and instead of toying around with reintroducing a proven harmful policy, focus on how to really rebuild a safe, legal, and humane asylum system at the U.S. Mexico border.”


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The #WelcomeWithDignity Campaign for asylum rights is composed of more than 100 organizations committed to transforming the way the United States receives and protects people forced to flee their homes to ensure they are treated humanely and fairly. To learn more and join our campaign visit: