By Andrea Cárcamo, CVT (Center for Victims of Torture) senior policy counsel
As the world turns its attention towards the early days of a Joe Biden presidency, those of us advocating for more humane immigration policies are expecting his and Vice President-elect Harris’s administration to significantly improve the lives and prospects of asylum seekers, and the torture survivors among them. During the presidential campaign, immigration was largely drowned in a tidal wave of other issues, COVID-19 being the biggest. Yet, one promise President-elect Biden continuously made during his campaign was that he would end family separations at the border, and make that a top priority during his first 100 days in office.
That is a critical step; taking children from their parents at the southern border is an abhorrent practice. But family separation is only the tip of the iceberg. The Biden / Harris administration also needs to tackle one of the biggest drivers of family separation: detention.
Family separation reached its peak in 2018, and was met with widespread public outrage and major protests. The magnitude of the public outrage shows us that the vast majority of the American public understands the sacredness of the parent-child bond, a point driven home by 20,000 medical professionals who warned Trump administration officials that “[t]he relationship of parents and children is the strongest social tie most people experience, and a threat to that tie is among the most traumatic events people can experience.”
Immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States — which relies on, and is fueled by, a massive and sprawling immigration detention system — severs this foundational bond far more frequently than did Trump’s cruel border prosecutions. In fiscal year 2019, the average daily number of individuals in immigration detention was 50,165, and a total of 510,854 individuals were detained. Children have been left abandoned at school because their parents were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the day. Daily, asylum seekers and other individuals who have been contributing to our community for years — or even decades — are sent to a cell while their children are left wondering if the last time they saw their parents was truly the last. Some might be deported and others might spend months, or even years, in detention while they seek immigration relief.
As CVT clinicians have explained, “detention that is indefinite in nature, which is typically the case in the immigration context, is even more damaging . . . This uncertainty, particularly when prolonged, can cause such severe and protracted health problems that it rises to the level of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and can seriously harm even healthy individuals.” Detention of individuals on such massive scale leaves broken families and leads to continuous trauma that spreads across communities.
While it is encouraging that President-elect Biden has also promised to reinvest in a case management program and end prolonged detention, he and Vice President-elect Harris must do more, and they can. What most of the general public does not understand — and it shocks me every time I think about it — is that ICE has discretion to release the vast majority of the individuals it detains, but chooses to keep them behind bars. This includes all those apprehended at the border and the interior of the country, including asylum seekers. The good news is that a president can order ICE to release all individuals that the agency has discretion to release. And there are alternatives to detention that are available to immigration authorities.
A Biden / Harris administration must live up to the principle that led to the outrage when family separation reached its peak — respecting the parent-child bond. There are still more than 600 children who were separated from their parents at the border, and the new administration must immediately work to reunite them, but it should not forget the additional thousands of children who are separated from their parents on a daily basis as a result of immigration detention.
Cover sketch by Andrea Cárcamo