Experiences of Children in Detention

Taking a closer look at Detention Centers

By Ashleigh Carby

Over the last year, there has been a massive public outcry over children being separated from their migrating families at the Mexican border. On April 6, 2018, Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. Attorney General in the Trump administration, announced a policy of Zero Tolerance that promised persecution against undocumented immigrants and those who are caught crossing the border. Shortly after, more than 2,000 children were separated and put into ICE detention centers, which mimics that of prison.

The Trump administration's Zero Tolerance policy prosecutes migrants and charges them with a criminal offense. It separates and detains migrant children for months at a time while their parents or caretakers are imprisoned. Not only has the Trump administration's  Zero Tolerance policy resulted in more than 2,300 children being separated from their families at the border within the first few months of this administrative change, but it has become the root cause of detention centers near the border to overfill with migrant children.

Prior to the Zero Tolerance Policy, under the Bush and Obama administrations, migrants who crossed the border were detained for a short amount of time before being interviewed and discharged back into the U.S. with an awaited court date under the merit of ‘credible fear.’

Today, there are more than 1478 detention centers across the United States, with Texas leading that statistic with 184 detention centers holding nearly 16,000 migrants and California second with 120 detention centers holding an estimated 6,500 migrants. According to the International Detention Coalition, the summarized concept of immigration detention is, “deprivation of liberty for migration-related reasons. This is an administrative or civil power that operates separately to the powers given to the police and criminal courts. In contrast, criminal incarceration is the deprivation of liberty of a citizen or non-citizen due to criminal charges or convictions.”

However, there are no laws stating that children must be separated from their parents and detained when caught crossing the border. There was also a time where family detention was not a mandatory action as seen in comparison to today’s current U.S. policies and actions. DHS, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, states that once a parent or caretaker has been apprehended and charged for entering the U.S. without documentation, the children are then transported to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. These departments are responsible for the children's care and are required by law to place unaccompanied minors in environments that are of the children’s best interest and well-being, such as foster care or in the care of a relative already in the United States.

Although child detention is not a necessary option among many others, The Flores Agreement of 1997 stands as a regulator of the treatment of children and the standard held for the conditions of the detention centers.  Under the Flores Agreement, the United States government is held by legal and moral obligation to ensure that all children in its custody are protected and treated with care. The federal government must ensure that migrant children in detention are held in the least restrictive conditions possible and they are released from detention to parents or an approved sponsor without unnecessary delays. Government facilities must provide sanitary conditions, water, food, medical assistance, adequate supervision, and contact with the family.

According to Abel Rodrigez, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center of Immigration, “With its executive order, the Trump administration seeks to expand family detention. More specifically, it wants to modify and limit Flores in a way that would permit the detention of families throughout the duration of their immigration proceedings and exempt the government from having to seek state licensing for family facilities. Previously, the courts have allowed the detention of children for over 20 days during times of influx or emergency. They include both accompanied and unaccompanied children.”

What are these detention centers like? Migrants commonly refer to these cells as the freezers, or hieleras, Spanish for ‘freezers,’ which is spoken in a literal sense. These detention centers are kept at a chilling 70 degrees and sometimes lower, there are no mattresses or blankets to keep young children warm because they facility centers would run out of them due to overpopulating these ICE centers. Despite the Flores Agreement regulating a safe and comfortable condition, the state of the conditions of detention centers are declining year by year, where a noose was found under the bed of a migrant and over 1,200 cases of sexual and physical assault between 2010 and 2017 while only 43 investigations took place.

Even though legislative change may not be in the near future for immigrant detention, several organizations and churches are willing are to provide sanctuary for migrants and are in danger of going to ICE detention centers and deportation.

The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia leads by this example. This immigrant-led, nonprofit organization fights against immigration injustices and provides a safe and welcoming community for migrants despite their status. New Sanctuary Movement makes sure that migrants' dignity remains intact. Peter Pedemonti, co-director and founder of the organization, states, “We work with 29 congregations in Philadelphia. We engage people to develop leadership to live out our values, and to love our neighbors and welcome strangers. We connect migrants with trust-worker legal representation and we go to court with people. It shows the judge that people outside immigration are watching closely in a place that holds so much power in someone’s future.”

Scroll to Top