Annual Meeting

US immigration detention policies are 'incompatible with basic principles of justice,' says law prof

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Gavel on top of immigration forms

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At an ABA Annual Meeting panel on Friday, speakers had strong criticisms of the federal government’s detention policies for immigrant mothers with children.

“The government’s family detention policies of widespread detention of families and secure lockdown facilities are just incompatible with basic principles of justice and liberty,” said Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas Law School and director of the school’s immigration law clinic.

“It’s not enough to change it. You must abolish it because it fundamentally goes against human dignity,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

The panelists spoke at a CLE session sponsored by the Commission on Immigration, “Women and Children First: Is Family Detention Really Justified and Necessary?” The program was organized in part to present the commission’s report on family detention, which will be published in a week or two, according to commission chair Christina Fiflis, an immigration lawyer from Boulder, Colorado. The moderator was Maria Hinojosa, the host of NPR’s Latino USA.

Gilman, a member of the commission and a primary author of the report, has been working directly with detained women and children in her role at the law clinic. Because of the explosion of publicity surrounding the so-called surge of unaccompanied minors last summer, Gilman said, federal authorities switched from a policy of releasing families with small children, pending hearings, to a policy of detaining every one. The government originally said this was intended to deter further immigrants by showing they’d be locked up on arrival; and while it has changed its policy, she said, there’s no sign that expansion of detention has stopped.

Gilman said the facilities are prisonlike, with locked facilities and X-ray machines at the doors. Both Texas facilities, in Karnes City and Dilley, are run by private prison companies. Though the families are not technically prisoners, they’re treated like they are, she said. In one case, guards would not permit her students to bring a cupcake to a client celebrating his 9th birthday in detention, she said.

Dr. Breeda McGrath, a psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychiatry, said detention will also take a toll on the children. Many fled their homes because of gang violence, or physical or sexual abuse, she said, and detention centers can re-traumatize them. Because studies show that most people who are deported come right back, she said, these are problems that will show up in the population later.

“They’re leaving detention centers at high risk for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that we will end up dealing with and paying for,” McGrath said.

Another primary author of the commission’s report was speaker Dora Schriro, public safety commissioner for Connecticut and a former adviser on immigration to the Department of Homeland Security. She described the history of immigration detention, including the lengthy history of Flores v. Meese, a lawsuit over conditions of detention for minors.

Flores was settled in 1997, with an agreement requiring, among other things, that detention should be a last resort. But it was recently reopened by plaintiffs concerned about the conditions of children accompanied by parents in immigration detention. On July 24, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee issued a ruling (PDF) that the Flores settlement applies to children accompanied by mothers and said the detention was “deplorable.”

The final speaker was Gutierrez, who said detention is “really all political.”

“You know what’s tough? A million Syrians showing up in Lebanon,” he said. “Sixty thousand, 70,000 kids? We can handle it. But everybody thought the country’s coming to an end.”

Gutierrez, Hinojosa and McGrath all spoke about their personal experiences as immigrants or children of immigrants. McGrath, who is from Ireland, had particularly harsh words about the disconnect between Americans’ celebration of Irish culture and the sometimes unfair treatment of Latin Americans.

“I can tell you that one of my greatest challenges coming to the States as an Irish immigrant was an embarrassment about how Latino peers are being treated, how I was being treated differently from others,” she said. “Yes, it’s a nation of immigrants here if you’re the right color, or if you came during a certain period, or if you can pay for an attorney.”

A video from the panel:

See what people are saying about the events on social media, and follow along with our full coverage of the 2015 ABA Annual Meeting.

Updated Aug. 19 to include video from the panel.

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