Alternatives to Immigration Detention

Rebuilding Hope, September 2014 edition
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In 2007, LIRS co-authored a report with the Women’s Refugee CrisisAtTheBorderCommission called “Locking Up Family Values” that dramatically reduced the use of detention for immigrant families. That is why we were deeply saddened in July to hear that the Department of Homeland Security would once again expand this practice.

Nora Skelly, former LIRS Assistant Director of Advocacy, recently visited the Family Residential Center in Artesia, New Mexico, where she was disappointed to observe many of the same harmful trends LIRS documented in 2007. This facility also serves as a federal law enforcement training center and began detaining approximately 600 immigrant women and their children about two months ago.

One migrant mother, Mari, tearfully explains why she made the long, dangerous journey from El Salvador to the United States, “Because of the crime and violence.” Her voice cracks and her eyes swell with tears as she looks down at her 8-year old daughter, Alejandra. “Really, moms have to do this to keep our children safe and protected; we have to do this for their futures.”

She goes on to tell about their journey to the U.S. “We left El Salvador on a bus. The police would force us off the bus. The driver would give my daughter and me money to give to the police.

We arrived at a house in Mexico, where we had to leave everything we had. We could only keep the clothing that we were wearing. We crossed the border in a boat and walked for a long time, and then we had to run. They caught us.”

We were first put into an enormous room that housed hundreds of other people who were also caught. They kept men with women, even children in the same room.”

Then they moved us to the prison, where we all stayed in large cells with about 60 other mothers and children. For eight days we stayed there without enough places for everyone to sit or lie down. It was freezing and we didn’t have blankets; we were only given sheets. We had to use the bathroom in front of everyone. The worst part of our experience is that the guards yelled at us through the cells; they were always yelling at us.”

Numerous human rights organizations have found that incarcerating vulnerable individuals, such as women and children, in jails or jail-like settings poses a serious threat to their psychological health. There is also a risk of re-traumatizing victims of abuse, torture and human trafficking in these settings.  Children at the Artesia facility are already showing signs of malnutrition and some are losing weight dramatically.

Detention also prevents full access to legal services. One 11-year old US Citizen was held in detention in Artesia for more than a month. A chance encounter with an attorney prevented him from being detained further or worse, being deported.

For many years, LIRS has advocated for effective and efficient alternatives to detention. The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has developed and deployed a risk assessment tool to make informed detention decisions based on individual circumstances. However, because current appropriations language requires ICE to maintain 34,000 daily detention beds, individualized detention decisions may be overridden by the requirement to meet detention quotas.

Alternatives to Detention are a smarter, less expensive, and more humane way to ensure compliance with U.S. Immigration laws. They have been proven and are a highly cost-effective approach for ensuring that individuals appear at immigration proceedings. These alternatives may also be more appropriate for detainees with certain vulnerabilities, such as children.

Although the media portrays this event as hopeless, it is our hope that you can see beyond the news into the faces of the individual children and mothers making these difficult decisions to flee their homes. It cannot be an easy decision. There are countless stories about the dangers and pitfalls that exist along the journey to a new land. It is our hope that all those seeking safety on our shores, will feel welcome and receive fairness, dignity and compassion.

You can find these stories and other ways you can help on our blog at

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