Hey, ICE, let the mothers with children go free

There has to be a more humane way of handling mom with kids in this country illegally than imprisoning them

As the federal government struggled to handle the illicit flow of mothers and children, and children traveling alone, over the Mexican border last summer, it adopted several strategies, some of which made more sense (like trying to improve conditions in Central America) than others. Among the worst ideas: Detaining mothers and children in remote secure facilities not because of a legitimate fear they won’t show up for deportation hearings, but to send a message to others who might attempt that same desperate trek.

The main problem with that cold-hearted approach is it imprisoned people who have a legal right to petition the government for permission to stay for fear of persecution should they be returned home. Thus the U.S. government has been unjustifiably depriving people of their freedom. And it compounded the offense by trying to keep others from exercising the same legal – and moral – right to seek sanctuary.

The Times’ editorial board condemned the policy last month, agreeing with a federal judge that the practice was illegal:

“But the law also allows asylum seekers — many of whom are fleeing life-threatening conditions in their home countries — to come to the U.S. and make their case for entry. If they pose no threat and are expected to return for their hearings, it is both morally and legally wrong to lock them up as a matter of policy simply in an effort to deter others from coming. The Department of Homeland Security should drop its legal defense of a patently unjust policy.”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) announced Wednesday that it would end the deterrence detentions, even as it continues to appeal the judge's decision. Ending the deterrence strategy is welcome news, as is ICE’s announcement that it will seek more timely and consistent reviews of whether the families should be detained to ensure they appear for deportation hearings that determine whether they qualify for asylum.

But the government should drop the detentions of mothers and children altogether (here's the ACLU's overview of the issue). The vast majority of these cases are people who have every reason in the world to make their court dates – they want the judge to rule that they have a legal right to be here, and can start the process of becoming permanent residents. Blowing off court dates is a fast-track to failure for them.

It’s unclear exactly how much detaining the mothers and children is costing the federal government, but it’s not money wisely spent. Human Rights Watch, which has condemned the practice, estimates there are more than 1,000 mothers and children in custody now and the government is adding space to house 2,400 more.

It’s unnecessary detention. The vast majority of the asylum-seekers have family here, a support network to draw on, and a compelling incentive not to go into hiding. Keeping them – especially the children – in what are in fact prisons is not only unfair, it is detrimental to the children themselves.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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