In an unprecedented campaign to shut off avenues for those seeking asylum, the United States government recently announced its initiative to undercut a 22-year-old settlement that established that children under 18 cannot be detained for more than 20 days. Instead of 20 days, Donald J. Trump’s administration now proposes to put entire families together in detention until their immigration cases are processed.
Studies have shown that this has serious consequences on children’s physical and mental health. In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report on the impact of incarceration of children in the U.S., stating that young detainees may experience developmental delay and poor psychological adjustment.
Other reports on detained unaccompanied children found high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and other behavior problems. Incarcerated children often go from detention facilities into our schools and communities.
Currently, 19 states and the District of Colombia are suing the Trump administration to stop indefinite detention of children.
Backlogged Immigration Cases in US
As of June, there were almost 950,000 backlogged immigration cases in the United States. This number does not include all the cases of the 475,000 members of families who have crossed the southwestern border in the past ten months.
According to data on pending immigration cases, 22 percent are Guatemalans – many of indigenous origin. For Guatemalans, it takes on average 560 days to process their immigration case. Over a year and a half is a long time to put parents and children in detention while their cases are processed.
If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2019
Last year while on sabbatical, I worked at a shelter in San Diego that received refugee families after they were detained and released by ICE, from 50 to 200 people per day. People in the shelter had been granted permission by ICE to remain in the U.S. until their hearing in Immigration Court. I spent time speaking with families primarily from Central America through doing their intakes and accompanying them through security at the airport and to their planes as they flew to rejoin relatives.
In these spaces, I learned about why they fled. Most had multiple reasons: domestic, gang, or other forms of violence combined with drought and failed crops, lack of work, and lack of access to education and systems of justice. The U.S. State Department’s February 2019 travel advisory to Guatemala acknowledged as much by saying:
“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.”
For the people I spoke with, fleeing to the U.S. was the last option and not a cheap one. On average, they paid between $6,000 and $10,000 per person. Many had sold houses, land, or untaken large loans to finance their trips. Most were reuniting with family members who had significant histories of residency in the United States.
Many talked about feeling trapped and imprisoned in their countries of origin. Now the U.S. will intensify that feeling by actually incarcerating them. Children and families fleeing conditions of violence and persecution deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and access to asylum.
We face the challenge of receiving and supporting refugee families in our neighborhoods and schools. In early August, the Oregon Department of Education where I live held a workshop to discuss services to families and students from Guatemala, with a focus on indigenous languages and cultures, an important first step.
Imprisoning families for months and possibly years while their asylum cases move forward is not a solution. Facilitating connection and support is.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.