The Department of Justice announced on Aug. 18 that it will be reducing and ultimately ending the use of private prisons.
The department’s inspector general found that the private prisons “do not save substantially on costs” and “do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” Inexplicably excluded from this announcement was any mention of the the use of private prisons to jail hundreds of women and children who seek asylum on our southern border.
Family immigration detention centers are also private prisons run by the same contractors, the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General has received similarly distressing complaints regarding the health, safety and detention standards in family detention centers.
Never miss a local story.
These facilities should be held to an even higher standard, because they detain minors. But they routinely fall short.
If the Department of Justice found that private prisons are inadequate for adults convicted of crimes, why would similar centers be acceptable to house vulnerable women and children who have broken no laws?
This issue has received little attention, and that is probably because it is so complex and emotionally fraught.
Last year, my colleagues and I joined other attorneys from the Kansas City and St. Louis areas to volunteer at a family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Although I work with asylum seekers every day, being at the detention facility was one of the most difficult and emotionally draining experiences of my life.
Speaking with women and children who only days earlier had escaped with their lives illustrated to me the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Central America, and how deplorable our treatment of these families really is.
These women and children respect and follow the law of the United States by presenting themselves at the border and requesting asylum.
Our law states that “any alien physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States, irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.” Their applications are ultimately decided by immigration judges who listen to their testimony and consider any supporting documentation that they may have.
There is no legal requirement that these asylum seekers be detained.
Yet, instead of being treated as the refugees that they are, our government immediately treats them as criminals and jails them until they can prove they have a “credible” fear of returning to their country.
With more than 93 percent of women in detention centers successfully proving that they have a credible fear, many, if not all, have a good possibility of gaining asylum in the United States. Why the government has decided instead to detain them, at a cost to taxpayers of $343 per individual per day, is nonsensical.
Most are eventually released after weeks, sometimes months and years, and continue to attend their immigration court hearing dates and apply for asylum.
It is a difficult reality to know that our government jails women and children for seeking refuge from persecution.
But it is a fact that we, as voters, should not forget. Especially in the current election cycle, there is a lot of noise about immigration.
Rather than floating proposals that could never exist in reality, our leaders would do well to focus on reality and end an inhumane and expensive practice.
Valerie Sprout of Shawnee is an immigration attorney focusing on family-based and humanitarian cases. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.