With the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, advocates for immigration reform can look forward to more years of playing defense. In the meantime, there is one grave immigration injustice that President Obama has the power to fix now — ending family immigration detention.
We urge him, with the support of Minnesota’s Democratic congressional delegation, to immediately stop incarcerating mothers, infants and children.
In 2014, the Obama administration decided that Central American mothers and children, fleeing to escape violence in their home countries, constitute an enforcement priority — on equal footing with suspected terrorists and felons. By the time the administration formally committed to its family immigration detention policy, the government was already well on its way to its current incarceration capacity of 3,500 mothers and children.
The government’s family detention centers, which carry the Orwellian name of “Family Residential Facilities” are in Texas and Berks, Pa. In Berks, children as young as 2 have been jailed for more than a year. The Dilley, Texas, facility has capacity for 2,000 mothers and children — including cribs for infants. We are paying for these families to be in detention, despite having valid asylum claims, as well as family members willing to house and care for them on the outside.
Who benefits? With “bed rates” nearing $350 per day, the obvious winners are the giant for-profit prison corporations: the Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA; recently rebranded as CoreCivic). CCA’s stock plunged after the Obama administration announced that the Department of Justice would end its contracts with private prisons, but then rebounded, in significant part because of the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to renew CCA’s contract to operate the Texas facility, to the tune of $667,000 per day. (A fee that CCA “earns” regardless of how many women and children are detained in Dilley).
Meanwhile, the county commissioners in Berks continue to operate a facility that lost its license. It is a sad irony that Obama publicly condemns mass incarceration while simultaneously stimulating the growth of immigration detention for mothers and children.
Members of Obama’s own party in Congress have not remained silent on this issue. Sen. Al Franken, Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesotans all, have repeatedly criticized the administration for reviving these family immigration jails, almost 20 years after a federal settlement nearly eliminated them entirely. Since family immigration detention was revived under a Democratic administration, it is fitting that Democrats should be front and center in efforts to end it.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has been conspicuously absent from this effort. Last year, Klobuchar came out with a memoir, “The Senator Next Door.” In a Star Tribune column on the memoir, journalist Lori Sturdevant highlighted the senator’s personal connection to the immigration debate, as Klobuchar’s own grandfather appears to have violated his immigration status and withheld information in order to get around immigration quotas, “gam[ing] the system” nearly 20 years before obtaining citizenship. The article quotes an excerpt from the memoir where the senator muses about “what would have happened to him [her grandfather]” if he were entering the U.S. now.
As attorneys who have volunteered many times in the president’s family immigration jails, we have an answer to her question. If it had been Klobuchar’s grandmother traveling with a young child across the southern border, the odds are high that they would have been jailed.
Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether you are appalled by the inhumanity of family immigration detention or shocked by its financial cost, ending the incarceration of children is in the best interests of the United States. We are running out of time for Klobuchar to join her colleagues and advocate for immediate closure of these detention centers.
Kim Hunter and Brian Aust are members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Minnesota/Dakotas chapter.