Incarceration of Refugee Children and Families


Children sleep on the floor of a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, 2014. Since 2013, thousands of children from Central America have been warehoused in overcrowded detention facilities in Arizona and Texas. (REUTERS/Eric Gay/Pool.)

In 2014, to deter families and unaccompanied children fleeing rampant violence in Central America from seeking protection in the United States, federal authorities shifted from screening and releasing refugees to detaining and deporting them.

Tens of thousands of Central American families and children have been warehoused in overcrowded detention facilities. Half of these children are younger than seven and especially vulnerable to weight loss, sleep deprivation, and infections from unsanitary conditions. Detained children experience a tenfold increase in psychiatric disorders.

This trauma is compounded by increasing barriers to obtaining asylum. Only 20 percent of detainees have legal help, without which they are 17 times less likely to be granted asylum.

Despite calls for reform, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expanded detention of mothers and children by 4000 percent from 2014 to 2015. The number of family detention beds increased from 100 in 2014 to 3800 in 2015, and new family detention facilities are opening in Texas, including one for-profit private facility. DHS has requested an additional $345 million to expand the detention of families and unaccompanied children in 2016.

There is a longstanding criticism of United States immigration policy, which many believe favors European immigrants over people who come to the United States from South and Central America and the Caribbean.