For the last year and a half, I have worked as a pro bono lawyer at two family detention centers in Texas. My clients are mothers and children who have fled unspeakable violence in Central America and are now locked up in facilities run by private, for-profit prison companies. I have seen in my clients’ faces the desperate desire for a life of safety in the United States. And I have witnessed first hand the tremendous psychological and, in many cases, physical impact that detention here inflicts on families.
There are viable alternatives to address this tragic humanitarian refugee crisis. They lie in community-based organizations that allow families to stay intact and seek refugee protection in this country.
Community-based case management systems are holistic networks offering resources that encompass every aspect of refugees’ lives. These networks allow families to relocate and live with relatives, host families, or in community group homes. I have worked with immigrant residents of one such organization in Austin, Casa Marianella, which provides a homelike shelter, social services, job training, and, importantly, pro bono legal representation to its immigrant residents.
Research shows that legal representation is the single most significant variable in obtaining asylum; without a lawyer, mothers and children face insurmountable barriers. Since family detention began again in 2014, only 30% of mothers and children have been able to secure legal counsel, including those fortunate enough to be released from detention.
Community-based case management systems like Casa Marianella link refugee families with competent attorneys who guide them through this complex process, ensuring that families appear for their immigration hearings and thus greatly increasing the likelihood of winning asylum. In fact, a case management pilot administered by Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Services resulted in more than a 95% appearance rate in court and compliance with other requirements of the program.
I am outraged that, instead of turning to established organizations with histories of providing community-based aid for refugees, our government is asking the same prison companies to manage their cases. For example, DHS recently hired the GEO Group, to do just that. GEO is also the parent company placing cumbersome and stigmatizing ankle monitors on women who have been released from detention centers — hardly the treatment that refugees warrant or deserve. So now, GEO runs the detention center, administers ankle monitoring, and handles case management of these families.
Further, this vast family detention system wastes millions of taxpayer dollars. It currently costs $342.17 per day to detain a mother and child at these facilities. According to DHS estimates, community-based alternatives to detention would cost $5.16 per day.
Jailing women and children is not an appropriate model for an effective and humane response to a refugee crisis. DHS must turn to trusted and experienced non-profit refugee organizations that are deeply committed to providing high-quality social and legal services to those fleeing endemic violence in Central America.
The government’s reflex to treat refugees as prisoners shows that our first step lies in changing how Americans perceive the right to liberty. We must adopt the presumption that detention is the last resort — not the first response — to receiving traumatized women and children. These liberty principles aren’t new ideas; they’re incorporated into international human rights law, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and are part of our history as a country of immigrants.