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Promises Broken, Children Kept

Despite an ongoing pandemic, the number of undocumented immigrants trying to enter the U.S. continues to rise, so much that Biden has recently deployed FEMA to help with the surge of children at the border. Existing immigration policy in the U.S. is constantly debated, regularly criticized, and slow to change. Perhaps most importantly, it consistently results in the mistreatment and neglect of immigrants and asylum seekers, whilst accruing unnecessary costs for the nation as a whole. Given a number of ethical and material considerations, it makes sense to dramatically shift the immigration system away from the detention model and towards a more humane, humanitarian approach.

The current process for handling asylum seekers and those who cross the border seeking a life in America involves a heavily bureaucratic, inefficient, and dehumanizing system. The central concern for migrants is detainment, which can last from months to years. Children are often separated from their parents and kept in cages, and several have died in these facilities due to unaddressed health concerns and general neglect. Trump’s presidency inadvertently highlighted, as well as directly exacerbated, these harmful conditions. Opponents of his presidency made his immigration policy and further empowerment of enforcers like ICE a central critique of his time in office. Biden ran on a platform of positive change and advocated for more humane immigration policies, but despite several executive order reversals, most of these gains have failed to materialize.

Instead, Biden has re-opened and has plans to reopen several Trump-era child-holding facilities, including the Carrizo Springs facility as well as the infamous Homestead facility. Both were shut down mid-2019, and the latter in particular because of the numerous claims of sexual abuse of minors from the staff – people who had not been vetted for child abuse. Moreover, the Homestead facility is surrounded by toxic and untested Superfund pollution sites as well as a military base runway that constantly exposes the vulnerable children to F-16 jet noises. This shelter was actually built during the Obama administration under which Biden served, and has been used since during both his and his successor’s administrations to detain children without providing access to internet or education. When visiting the facility in 2019 as part of her campaign trail, Kamala Harris made a promise to shut it down as the first thing she would do. So far that promise has fallen flat.

Moreover, the homestead facility is run by the private for-profit contractor Comprehensive Health Services, Inc (CHSi). Handing for-profit companies the responsibility of running detention centers is much like handing for-profit companies the management of prisons: both lead to perverse incentives such as a desire on the company’s part to keep the children locked up and to make use of these facilities for as long as possible. Driven by a profit motive, these companies advocate for the prolonged use of existing detention facilities, leading to a far more vicious cycle of detention than if they were not-for-profit. Immigration activists are already demanding that the facilities, in particular the Homestead facility, stay closed. 

To build a more humane and just immigration system, one must not only make sure to avoid making use of private companies, depriving children of internet and education, and not performing sufficient background checks on staff members, but also consider what can be done instead as well as the accompanying incentives. Essentially, this would look like the opposite of the for-profit unregulated, inefficient model detailed above. The antithesis of that is not merely a non-profit holding cell but also involves phasing out the existing facilities, actively making applications for asylum more accessible, and connecting children with their U.S. sponsors as quickly as possible. In particular, the system needs to change such that the right incentives are in place and all parties have an interest in making sure that these children are kept in safe and secure spaces for as little time as possible. Children are usually re-connected with their sponsors, often their parents, after a lot of paperwork through which the U.S. government’s Health and Human Services department screens the sponsors for criminal history and “fitness”. However, about a third of the time, an appropriate sponsor is not found, and these children are instead kept by the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement branch until they turn 18, after which they may be released.

Many such proposals exist, but all of them center around completely shifting the purpose of these detention facilities. This shifts the purpose from one that implicitly plays out a deterrent role by making conditions horrible in order to disincentivize more families and children from applying for asylum in the U.S. to a different goal of meeting the needs of these children, particularly with regards to their health and safety. That so much of the conversation around these “migrant detention centers,” or “cages,” as they were called previously, exists in a binary framework that claims only two possibilities for these children—keeping them in these horrible facilities or leaving them to fend for themselves—shows a deep-rooted default towards a cruel and punitive immigration system for which alternatives are difficult to imagine. 

A plethora of options actually exist, including completely rebuilding old facilities, creating new facilities, or making use of existing facilities that act in ways akin to housed educational programs, operated in ways that are, at the most basic level, nothing like the prisons they’re modeled after right now. This means greater access to health services, the ability to socialize with others normally rather than being separated from family, and having access to some form of learning, sanitary spaces, and basic amenities. It’s also important that the government shifts away from running the facility using “guards” to almost entirely with social workers and those thoroughly vetted to work with children.

When we think about homelessness and how a large number of nonprofits and churches are able to find ways to help their local homeless populations, we certainly don’t imagine any detention – government-enforced or otherwise – happening, and even the thought of it would be horrifying for anyone regardless of their political leanings. Similarly, it is not so difficult to find equivalent ways of supporting children in between when they arrive in the U.S. and when they can be safely delivered to their new home. Rather than keeping children in isolated cells, it is worth it to instead spend money on facilities that treat children with the decency and humanity they deserve simply on account of their being human. That alone likely isn’t enough to motivate any political change in Washington, but it’s possible that these new centers would incentivize entirely the opposite changes compared to the for-profit system. While the current for-profit system used in a number of facilities incentivizes keeping people as long as possible, making use of higher-quality, higher-cost facilities run on government money incentivizes the facilities to process each child as quickly as possible in order to save on costs.

Photo: Image via Unsplash (Julie Ricard)