The US Commission on Civil Rights released a report Thursday strongly criticizing the Obama administration’s immigration detention centers, which, for the past two years, have housed record-setting numbers of families and unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America.
The commission, an independent government body created in 1957 and tasked with ensuring that the federal government fairly enforces civil rights laws, calls on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release all detained families, reduce its reliance on long-term detention, and improve detainees’ legal access and protection from abuse.
The report follows months of confusion about how to efficiently yet humanely process asylum claims from tens of thousands who have entered illegally along the US-Mexican border in a sudden uptick that many blame on drug-related violence.
Since only October 2014, nearly 31,000 unaccompanied children and nearly 30,000 families were apprehended at the southwestern US border, according to Reuters. The previous year, roughly 50 percent more had entered from Central American nations such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, creating a humanitarian crisis for the United States and Mexico.
According to a Clinton administration settlement, children may not be detained for more than 72 hours, a rule that US District Judge Dolly Gee has argued extends to mothers traveling with their children. Swamped with asylum applicants, however, the DHS has been unable to process claims within the three-day window.
Rather than rely on remote monitoring, the DHS expanded its use of long-term detention centers, some of which are managed by private prison operators.
The Justice Department has defended the centers as keeping families intact while they await their cases, while also arguing that a detention system is necessary to discourage yet more illegal immigrants from making the treacherous journey north, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
Over the summer, Judge Gee twice ordered the federal government to release detained children, saying that DHS is violating the 1997 72-hour rule, and citing “deplorable” living conditions at several centers. Gee has given the government until October 23 to comply.
The new report echoes Gee’s findings that centers provided inadequate services, from lacking medical care to insufficient food and bedding, adding that the Commission received reports of child abuse. Moreover, it warns that immigrants are not being granted their rights to due process.
In a 2013 op-ed for the New York Times, Pulitzer-winning journalist Sonia Nazario describes the trauma many unaccompanied children endure not only traveling towards the US border, but attempting to defend their own asylum claims. “In a nation that prides itself on the fact that everyone accused of a crime – murderers, rapists – has the right to a lawyer,” she writes, “undocumented immigrants, even when they are unaccompanied children, are not entitled to a public defender.”
Children have been singled out for victimization in Central America’s ongoing drug conflicts, which intensified as Mexico’s own drug wars drove more gangs and cartels south, according to PBS. Pushed into gang wars or the drug trade by criminals who often use sexual violence to pressure their victims, immigrant children are trying to escape countries with the highest murder rates in the world.
Meanwhile, immigration debates have provided plenty of fodder for the 2016 presidential debates: some candidates have called for all illegal immigrants to be rounded up and deported en masse, while Obama has urged Congress to accept thousands more Syrian refugees.