Editor’s Note: Clara Long is the acting deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch; Elora Mukherjee is clinical professor of law and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers. View more opinion at CNN.
Over the course of this summer, the American people – across party lines – have shown that they reject the hate and dehumanization of immigrants that appears to have motivated last weekend’s mass shooting in El Paso. Many are outraged over the cruel neglect of children in custody along the border – child abuse as immigration policy – and this has spurred Congress to exercise some much-needed oversight.
But the test is whether legislators will use the power of the purse to make a real difference for children by keeping families together and shifting the focus away from detention.
With senators and representatives home for the August recess, the American people have a pivotal opportunity to demand change now.
In mid-June, we interviewed children detained at the US Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, as monitors for the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires the government to release children from detention as promptly as possible and to hold children in safe and sanitary conditions when they are detained.
We found dirty, hungry, sick, scared children held far longer than the 72-hour limit imposed by law, with some children detained for weeks or more. We had participated in Flores monitoring visits at controversial detention centers in the past. But nothing prepared us for what we saw, heard, and smelled in Clint. As lawyers, as mothers, as Americans, we had to speak out.
Since then, the evidence of child abuse in US Customs and Border Protection facilities has become indisputable. A government watchdog within the Department of Homeland Security issued a damning report about the prolonged detention, overcrowding and mistreatment of children and families in Border Patrol custody. NBC News obtained nearly 30 incident reports documenting alleged abuse, sexual assault, and mistreatment of detained children in Yuma, Arizona. Agents themselves confirmed the filthy, overcrowded conditions to the New York Times.
This cruelty is occurring even though release is an entirely viable option.
Almost all children and families seeking asylum show up in court when given appropriate support. Data from recent years show that pairing asylum-seeking families with a lawyer or a social worker virtually guarantees that they will attend immigration court hearings 99% of the time when represented by counsel, and 99% of the time when paired with a social worker under what was the ICE Family Case Management Program, a support system for non-detained asylum seeking families, primarily Central American mothers and children.
Recently, Congress held six hearings about children in cages and ongoing family separations. The hearings are an important start. Under public scrutiny, Customs and Border Protection reduced the number of children in its custody from more than 2,500 in mid-June, many held for weeks, to under 350 as of July 17.
Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan testified on July 18 that children are now in Border Patrol custody “an average of fewer than 35 hours.” While the administration has not released data to substantiate the claim, this suggests it is responding to attention on its illegal conduct.
Congress now needs to do more to ensure that refugee children are safe and free with their families. The American people must demand those changes in August.
In late June, House Democratic leaders pushed through a Senate Department of Homeland Security supplemental spending bill with nearly $2 billion to expand detention, but without sufficient funds to expedite the release of children or offer them alternatives to detention.
Writing a blank check to expand detention space does not solve child abuse at the border. If members of Congress are serious about protecting children, they will change their approach for the coming year’s Department of Homeland Security budget and pass legislation in September setting standards of care for children in custody.
First, Congress should direct immigration agencies to make release of asylum seekers, rather than detention, the norm. Instead, the administration abruptly terminated the ICE Family Case Management Program in June 2017, despite Congressional funding, demonstrated cost-savings, and high compliance rates. Congress should mandate its reinstatement.
Even asylum-seeking families without legal representation or access to the ICE Family Case Management Program overwhelmingly attend their hearings: 81.6% for the initial hearings and 76% for all their hearings, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
It cost $38 a day for a family to participate in the ICE Family Case Management Program, according to the Women’s Refugee Commission, an advocacy group, compared with $319 a day per bed at a family detention center or $775 a day per child detained at the secure for-profit facility in Homestead, Florida.
Second, Congress should ensure that appropriately trained and licensed professionals are making child welfare decisions – not border agents.
The US has an important responsibility to protect children. In rare circumstances family separation is appropriate – such as when a family member poses an imminent risk of harm to a child or being apart is truly in a child’s best interests. But right now border agents without specialized training in child welfare are routinely separating children from any non-parent, such as aunts and grandmothers (they say to protect these children from trafficking), and are still separating children from parents, inflicting long-term trauma on children as young as toddlers.
Congress should not allow border agencies to wave the false flag of child protection over their routine practices of harm.
For all Americans who are bearing witness to the abuses against immigrant children and families, do not stop. Your vigils, marches, phone calls, letters, and emails to your representatives are making a difference. And now you can do more. With senators and representatives back home for the recess, visit their home offices. Make sure your representatives know that their constituents want action as well as oversight.
Organize rallies in your hometowns to amplify children’s lived experiences and invite your representatives to join you in speaking out. If they don’t, mobilize your district to hold them accountable. Congress has the power to stop funding cruelty at the border when it returns to D.C. in September.