Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Putting an End to Family Detention

October 31, 2014

  By Tatum Garvin, Migration Intern

Putting-an-End-to-Family-Detention2On October 23, Pope Francis shared a message about families on Twitter. A fundamental value of Columbans is the importance of the family. Catholic social teaching honors the family as the central social institution that must be supported and strengthened, not undermined. This goes to the heart of the current immigration crisis in our country. Family detention of undocumented women and children fleeing persecution is the latest injustice in the U.S.-Mexico border crisis.

According to the Global Detention Project, the U.S. has the largest immigration detention system in the world. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security created the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to enforce immigration and customs laws, use investigative techniques to apprehend and detain those suspected of violating them, and deport many people. ICE detains more than 450,000 immigrants a year in 15 detention centers (including privatized facilities), in state and local jails, in juvenile detention centers, and in shelters. ICE is required by Congressional mandate to house 34,000 immigration detainees per day. This is known as the “bed quota.”

US Customs Border Patrol agent conducts a pat down of a Mexican undocumented immigrant being placed in a holding facility. Photo by U.S .Dept. of Homeland Security

US Customs Border Patrol agent conducts a pat down of a Mexican undocumented immigrant being placed in a holding facility. Photo by U.S .Dept. of Homeland Security

Now we have a new chapter in this crisis: family detention. With thousands of undocumented women and children seeking asylum in the U.S. in recent months, ICE has increased family detention of undocumented immigrants. This practice violates Catholic social teaching and international human rights standards. We are very concerned about possible abuse that can happen behind these prison walls, and limits in access to medical care, legal assistance, and support for healing from the trauma these vulnerable women and children have already endured.

The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach is a member of the Justice for Immigrants Campaign, a Catholic coalition initiated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The campaign recently hosted a webinar on the issue of family detention, which I was able to listen to and learn from.

The webinar focused on the detainment of female-led households in prison-like facilities and the injustices that surround their detention. The families often include abused mothers fleeing domestic violence, and children under the age of 14 who are fleeing the targeted violence of gangs, corrupt police, and drug cartels in their home countries.

The practice of family detention often causes separation of the family members, since men or children over the age of 17 are sent to different detention sites. In addition, detention is damaging to children’s health and wellbeing. There are limited play areas and private places for children in the prison-like facilities, and the majority of staff members are not trained in child welfare. Facilities are often in remote areas. For example, the Artesia facility, which is the largest family detention center, is located in the desert of New Mexico, three hours from the nearest large city. This makes it difficult for detained families to obtain the legal support they need to pursue their immigration cases.

What is not generally known is that there are effective alternatives to detention that are more humane, just and cost-efficient. Community-based case management services and parole offer better access to legal, medical and social support. ICE reports that it costs $119 per night per bed in each facility, while alternatives cost anywhere from $1 – $47 per day per bed.

Let President Obama and Congress know we need to end the use of family detention. You can send an electronic postcard to the President and members of Congress by going to and adding your name and address.