End the Detention of Migrant Families and Children!

The government has an absolute responsibility to keep all people in detention safe. If it cannot do so, it must stop detaining them.

Right now, thousands of migrant children and their families are in U.S. detention facilities. Many of them have fled brutal violence in their home countries, making a journey that is itself dangerous, especially for children. Scores of young people travel without a parent; others have been separated from their parents at the border, under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.

By the time they arrive in the U.S., migrant children are frightened, exhausted, and in urgent need of protection. Unfortunately, once in detention, many encounter violence and sexual abuse rather than the help they need. Run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the system of immigration detention for children consists of a patchwork of uneven shelters and foster homes that are subject to virtually no oversight. Appallingly, HHS has failed to audit many of these facilities on their efforts to protect children from sexual abuse, even though it is required to do so by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). HHS also has not published the data that it is obligated to collect on reports of sexual abuse and harassment in its facilities.

With existing shelters at or nearing capacity, HHS is increasingly relying on unsafe, ad hoc solutions, including a converted Walmart. Recently, HHS announced it would detain thousands of kids on military bases. These facilities are not designed to provide vulnerable children with safe housing. Notably, HHS has brought on hundreds of staff who have no experience working with traumatized children and, shockingly, fails to perform background checks on many new hires. A recent investigation revealed that some shelters kept known abusers on their payroll, and that the companies that run such facilities continue to have HHS contracts.

The immigration detention crisis extends far beyond HHS and its facilities. In a recent executive order, President Trump ended the policy of separating migrant children from their parents. The President’s order will lead to a greater reliance on family detention facilities, which are run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These facilities also have been plagued by problems, including sexual violence. While ICE facilities have been audited for compliance with PREA, these audits have all been conducted by a private company that is notorious for its cheap, subpar PREA assessments. The only audits ICE has made publicly available were conducted over a year ago. ICE has acknowledged that more recent audits have been completed — including of T. Don Hutto, a family detention facility in Texas that is known for widespread violence and sexual abuse — but, inexcusably, the findings have not yet been released. Williamson County has voted to end its contract with ICE, and will no longer oversee the administration of T. Don Hutto. In the meantime, however, the facility still holds some 500 women.

JDI is now calling on HHS to release all children who have been separated from their parents and make sure that families are reunited; if the parents are also in custody, then they too must be released, unless they are a flight risk or have been charged with a violent crime. JDI is also calling on ICE to release all migrant families in its care. Detainees should be released on bond or through community-based alternatives while they await a court appearance.

JDI is further calling on HHS immediately to ensure that all of its facilities, including contract facilities, commit to implementing PREA. Doing so includes establishing a timeline for conducting PREA audits of each contract facility within one year, and once every three years thereafter. HHS must also publish all data pertaining to sexual abuse and sexual harassment in its facilities, as required under PREA.

Migrant children and families have the right be free from sexual abuse in detention. Unless the government shows it can keep these detainees safe, it cannot keep them locked up.