Samin Huq
Samin Huq
Aug 23 · 6 min read

Advocating Humane Alternatives to Detention

Children at a tent encampment in Tornillo, Texas on June 19, 2018. Mike Blake / Reuters file

The United States government has officially stopped separating children in favor of detaining them with their parents. Yet more than 2,800 children remain separated without a clear plan to reunite them with their families in sight [1]. In addition to the trauma of child separation, there are reports of children being abused and mistreated [2]. And at least two child detention centers have been denounced for their awful living conditions — Clint and Ursula [3].

Children were noted to have little access to soap, showers, and clean clothes. Issues of heat, malnutrition, and rampant disease have all been reported [4].

Child separation is an incredibly traumatic experience for small children, who are totally dependent on their parents’ care and presence. According to research on instances of child separation, separated children face a much higher risk of PTSD, as well as significantly greater chances of various other psychological problems. Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School who studied mass child separation in Romania, documents that those separated from parents at a young age have far less brain activity than normal [5].

Clara Long, a senior researcher for the US program at Human Rights Watch, condemned the terrible humanitarian conditions of the facility she visited [6]. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, was reportedly appalled by the conditions migrants face in US detention facilities and stated that children should never be separated from their families and that detention should not be the norm for adult migrants either [7].

Children sleep under mylar blankets in a makeshift Customs and Border Patrol facility. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Children aren’t the only ones suffering from hostile conditions. In an internal report prepared by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, inspectors mentioned that adult male migrants in the El Paso sector were held in severely overcrowded cells amid extreme temperatures, limited access to showers and clean clothing, as well as chickenpox and scabies outbreaks. The conditions were so terrible that the guards feared rioting [8]. The OIG has witnessed adult female overcrowding too [9].

However, few seem to know alternatives to detention (ATDs) exist — and that they can be humane as well as incredibly cost-effective compared to detention. According to the ACLU, the Family Case Management Program (FCMP) — run by ICE itself since January 2016 — was an ATD offered to asylum seeking families.

The FCMP was canceled in 2017 despite tremendous successes. It reportedly ‘’provided case management, referrals for support services, and legal orientation, in partnership with community-based non-governmental organizations’’ to address vulnerable migrant families’ primary needs and provide necessary information for complying with legal obligations. The program had a 99% success rate — nearly everyone showed up for their trial — and only cost $36 per day per family, as opposed to $319 per day per person for family detention [10].

ICE ended this program because its Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), was cheaper and deported more people while ensuring equal court compliance rates. ISAP utilizes ankle monitors, biometric voice recognition, unannounced home visits, and in-person reporting to supervise migrants [11].

ISAP is run by a subsidiary of Geo Group (as the FCMP was too) — which owns and profits from numerous detention centers and prisons [12]. While ISAP is cheaper than FCMP, both programs are much cheaper than detention, and it is curious that while ICE’s funds for ATDs have risen greatly, so have its funds for detention [13]. ISAP’s punitive use of ankle monitors, lack of case management, and disrespect for participants have received criticism [14].

Community-support ATDs might be preferable to those run by an organization profiting from detention itself. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the Vera Institute of Justice and the Catholic Charities of New Orleans (among others), have all employed ATD programs enjoying high appearance rates for migrants in court at relatively low costs [15].

LIRS provided various case management services like ‘’housing for families without support, orientations on compliance, and access to legal representation’’ in 2013. It featured a 97% migrant appearance rate in court and only cost about $50 per day per family for a 2015 pilot [15]. For the Community Support Initiative which started in 2012 to screen vulnerable migrants in ICE custody, support services cost as little as 7 dollars a day and an average of $24 a day per individual, while the court appearance rate was 97% [16].

Humane and cost-effective alternatives to detention exist. Concerned citizens need to call on their representatives to end both child separation and the overuse of detention facilities, as well as advocate the use of community-support alternatives to detention that respect the dignity of migrants in their care. Readers can also contribute to advocacy organizations such as RAICES, the ACLU, and others that advocate migrants’ rights.


[1] Soboroff, Jacob, and Julia Ainsley. “Trump Administration Identifies at Least 1,700 Additional Children It May Have Separated.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 18 May 2019,

[2] Haag, Matthew. “Thousands of Immigrant Children Said They Were Sexually Abused in U.S. Detention Centers, Report Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 27, 2019.

[3] Marshall, Serena, Lana Zak, and Jennifer Metz. “Doctor Compares Conditions for Unaccompanied Children at Immigrant Holding Centers to ‘Torture Facilities’.” ABC News. ABC News Network, June 23, 2019.

[4] Dickerson, Caitlin. “‘There Is a Stench’: No Soap and Overcrowding in Detention Centers for Migrant Children.” The New York Times. The New York Times, June 21, 2019.

[5] Wan, William. “What Separation from Parents Does to Children: ‘The Effect Is Catastrophic’.” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 18, 2018.

[6] Long, Clara, and Nicole Austin-Hillery. “We Went to a US Border Detention Center for Children. What We Saw Was Awful.” Human Rights Watch, June 25, 2019.

[7] Hennessy-Fiske, Molly. “U.N. Human Rights Chief Says She’s Appalled by Conditions in U.S. Migrant Detention Facilities.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2019.

[8] Ainsley, Julia, and Jacob Soboroff. “Conditions at El Paso Migrant Facility so Bad Agents Feared Riots, DHS Report Says.” NBCUniversal News Group, July 1, 2019.

[9] Office of Inspector-General, Management Alert — DHS Needs to Address Dangerous Overcrowding and Prolonged Detention of Children and Adults in the Rio Grande Valley (Redacted).

[10] Bendix, Aria. “ICE Shuts Down Program for Asylum-Seekers.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 10, 2017.

[11] Burnett, John. “As Asylum Seekers Swap Prison Beds For Ankle Bracelets, Same Firm Profits.” NPR. NPR, November 13, 2015.

[12] Fernandes, Jason. “Alternatives to Detention and the For-Profit Immigration System.” Center for American Progress, June 13, 2017.

[13] Secor, David, Heidi Altman, and Tara Tidwell Cullen. “Report: A Better Way: Community-Based Programming as an Alternative to Immigrant Incarceration.” National Immigrant Justice Center, April 2019.

[14] Nowrasteh, Alex. “Alternatives to Detention Are Cheaper than Universal Detention.” Cato Institute, June 20, 2018.

[15] Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward For U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS),

[16] The Real Alternatives to Detention, National Immigrant Justice Center, June 18, 2017.


Stringer, Heather. “Psychologists Respond to a Mental Health Crisis at the Border.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, May 29, 2018.

Hamilton, Jon. “Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child’s Brain.” NPR. NPR, February 24, 2014.



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