More Promises to Reform Family Detention Centers. Will Anything Really Change?

An activist weighs in on the immigrant detention system in America.

By Rhonda Fanning June 25, 2015 1:04 pm

It’s been a year since a mass migration of women and children from Central America inundated southern border towns. Immigration and customs officials quickly became overwhelmed, prompting the Obama administration to use family detention centers.

The following months brought a slew of headlines: hunger strikes, claims of prison-like conditions, solitary confinement and extreme wait times for bond hearings. The administration currently uses three detention centers, two of which are in Texas and cater to women and children. Both mainly hold Central American women and children. This week, a delegation of Democratic lawmakers visited the two centers in South Texas and condemned the living conditions.

At the same time, the administration is changing its policy toward detention. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced a plan yesterday to establish “reasonable” bond levels and speed up release times.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) in Texas, joined Texas Standard to discuss how he views the policy shift. According to its website, RAICES offers legal representation and counsel to “asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors, immigration detainees, and survivors of crime.”

On whether real change is coming:

“The administration has announced several changes over the course of the past months. Each time attention is drawn to this issue … the administration prepares a press release like the one we saw announcing changes – but in fact we haven’t seen much change on the ground.”

What the promise of faster wait times means:

“At the moment, the hearing processes can be quite quick. In fact, these individuals [women and children] have been prioritized over and above adults, single adults – even adults with criminal convictions – for a fast-track removal process. So what we really do see are women who are, on one hand, fast-tracked through the legal process – but they are held sometimes as much as nine, 10, 11 months in these detention centers.”

Ryan’s opinion on the memo’s real message:

“What I see is a continued – almost doubling down – on the use of this form of detention as a deterrence strategy. That’s something that the government has not backed off from yet. Just this week, we were forced to pay a bond for a woman of $10,000. … This is what sits at the core of this issue … the failure of the administration to grasp that these aren’t criminals. They’re not even immigrants. These are refugees. And when we talk about refugees, we have a whole different set of responsibilities, as a nation, to provide protection, to provide a fair adjudication –  and not this stigmatization, criminalization and incarceration of these vulnerable people.”

Read more on refugee status as determined by the Department of Homeland Security.

On the government’s decision not to recognize immigrants as refugees:

“When we do get our cases before an immigration judge, these women are winning their asylum cases at rates over and above 90 percent. It’s really not about whether or not these people are refugees. It’s about whether they are able to navigate this complicated, adverse landscape to be able to just get a judge to hear their case.”

See here for U.S. government criteria for receiving asylum.