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Seeking Asylum Isn’t Illegal – So Why Were These Kids in Jail?

Jul 16, 2015

Blog Post

Rachel Nusbaum, HIAS.org

The United States government has been locking up hundreds of mothers and children fleeing well documented violence in Central America. This week, the Department of Homeland Security announced an important change in that policy.

If there is a list somewhere of the greatest threats to America’s national security, children likely come in towards the bottom. Yes, they cry on airplanes and occasionally roam wild, but generally these are sources of irritation rather than alarm.

Yet, since last summer, the United States government has been locking up hundreds of mothers and children. These kids, fleeing well documented violence in Central America, are not criminals. There is no good reason to detain them and, aside from the moral concerns, international agreements require us to offer asylum seekers a meaningful opportunity to seek protection. Those who are detained are denied that opportunity.

This week, the Department of Homeland Security, under intense pressure from advocates and members of Congress, announced an important policy shift. On July 14, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress that, “once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”

“Asylum seekers should never be punished with detention for simply trying to reach a safe place,” said Melanie Nezer, Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at HIAS. “For asylum seekers, detention can exacerbate existing trauma and can make it harder for them to access the legal assistance they need to successfully present their claims.”

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is reported to have released around 200 Central Americans from its family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania in the past week. As you might expect from a ‘family’ facility, all of those held there are mothers and children. Despite having committed no crime, families are often held for months in prison-like facilities while waiting for their asylum cases to proceed.

HIAS has long advocated for the protection of children and families fleeing violence in Central America. “Policies that respect the rights and dignity of asylum seekers and the integrity of families are in keeping with Jewish and American history, values, and traditions. HIAS therefore opposes the detention of families and children who have come to the United States seeking safety, as international law allows,” says Nezer. “This is an important first step, but ultimately we need to get to a place where asylum seekers aren’t locked up in the first place. Seeking protection is not a crime, and we harm already traumatized families when we treat it as such.”