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Rights groups challenge DHS policy detaining migrant women and children

Wednesday, 04 February 2015

Advocates say detention of women and children is 'misguided' response to recent surge in migrants from Central America.

Lawyers for detained Central American families filed a motion on Monday in a United States district court in Los Angeles challenging the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) "no-release" policy for Central American women and children.

In response to a surge in the number unaccompanied children who came to the United States during the summer of 2014, DHS implemented a “no-release” policy, under which women traveling with children would be kept together in detention rather than allowing authorities to release them until their asylum claims were heard, if they posed no risk of flight and no risk to the communities. The policy was intended to deter people from crossing the border.

The lawyers challenging the policy said it is a “misguided” response to the surge in migration, which has since abated. "DHS' detaining women and children is a misguided over-reaction," said Carlos Holguín, an attorney for the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which is one of several organizations representing the families. "The spike in unauthorized arrivals ended last fall, yet DHS continues to detain women and children in prisons-for-profit such as those at Karnes City, and Dilley, Texas, at exorbitant taxpayer expense."

About 1,000 Central American women and children are currently detained in centers in Karnes City, Texas, Dilley, Texas, and Leesport, Pennsylvania, the lawyers said.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ranjana Natarajan, a clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights clinic, which is also representing the families, said the detention of children in inappropriate conditions can lead to long-term trauma. Some women in the detention centers reported that they had no access to medical care, beds or mattresses and nutritious food while living in the centers. “One of the most harrowing experiences of their experience after they migrated north," she said, "was that they recounted overly harsh conditions at customs and border protection facilities near the border."

“What this motion is about is preventing the unnecessary detention of children who are asylum seekers and haven’t done anything wrong and who don't pose a danger to anyone,” she added.

Under a 1985 class action settlement, Flores v. Reno, children are entitled to safe and appropriate placement during federal immigration custody. The settlement also requires U.S. authorities to treat children "with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors."

More than 66,000 unaccompanied minors have fled violence and poverty in Central America since October 2013 to enter the U.S. at the Texas border, according to DHS. While many children have been released to U.S. relatives, adult migrants have been held in detention centers while they await deportation or apply for political asylum.

 The migrants are fleeing extreme poverty and drug traffickers — and the violent gangs that support them — who kill, rob and extort with impunity. United Nations figures from 2012 show that violence in Central America had reached such heights that murder rates in some areas were higher than in Iraq during the height of war.

On Nov. 13, several human rights organizations, including the National Immigrant Justice Center, filed a complaint with the DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, citing “serious due process and civil rights violations” as well as systemic and routine failure by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to screen asylum claims properly at the border.

Al Jazeera America

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