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Immigrant Family Detention Harming Kids' Health: New Report

A new report finds parents held at a Pennsylvania immigration facility are still struggling and worried about their children.
This photo provided by the Department of Homeland Security shows children playing cards at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, Friday, Feb. 9, 2007. The detention facility houses immigrant families awaiting deportation. (AP Photo/Department of Homeland Security, Charles Reed)AP

A new report finds that despite reforms to the family detention system, parents held at a Pennsylvania facility are still struggling to be released and are worried that their children’s mental health and well-being could be in jeopardy.

The report, released Wednesday by Human Rights First, shows families detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Penn., are facing countless hurdles that are preventing them from being released.

They are being asked to pay expensive bonds and are facing delays in important interviews used to determine whether or not they have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries. Many are also lacking legal representation, the report states.

Parents detained at the Berks facility also are concerned about the changes in their children’s mental health and behavior, according to the report. Some parents said their children haven’t been eating well and have lost weight. Others said their children started acting out and behaving aggressively toward others.

“The bottom line is that detention, even for short amounts of time, is detrimental to the health and well-being of a child,” said Olga Byrne, who authored the report. “The Obama administration should immediately abandon this misguided approach and implement other measures, such as community-based programs, which are proven effective and less costly.”

The report comes several months after Homeland Security Seretary Jeh Johnson announced a series of “substantial changes” aimed at reducing the amount of time families are detained. Johnson said families who pass their credible fear interviews—a necessary first step in the asylum process—could be released on bond.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell said ICE "takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care."

"We are moving toward using family facilities as short-term processing centers where careful and informed judgments can be made about risk of flight, health concerns and humanitarian protection claims," Maxwell said.

The detention of children and their families has re-emerged as an issue after last year's arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families on the border seeking refuge in the U.S.

The Obama administration now is contending with opposition from the left to detaining the families and children.

RELATED: Flow of Immigrant Children Across Border Slows

Although large numbers of the arrivals were turned back or deported, hundreds were detained in an effort by the administration to send a message to others wanting to trek to the U.S. border. Many factors contributed to the summer arrivals, including extreme violence in Central America, economic conditions and exploitation of U.S. immigration procedures by smugglers.

"ICE ensures that the Berks center operates in an open environment and includes play rooms, social workers, educational services and access to legal counsel," Maxwell said. "Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment the families arrive and throughout their entire stay at the facility. Medical staffing for the residents includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care.”

The Bush administration contended with the issue of detaining women and children as well and shut down a former prison facility in Texas after advocates exposed problematic conditions there too. Many of the women held at Hutto were transferred to Berks.

Despite the changes at Berks, Human Rights First staff members who visited the Berks family detention centers said in the report that they met parents and children who’ve been detained for months and haven’t received any indication that they’ll be released soon. They also said the facility does not operate as a “child residential facility” and should be closed down.

In July, a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration could not continue detaining children and their parents and ordered that they be released immediately. The Department of Justice has asked the judge to reconsider her ruling, saying in part that it’s already speeding up the release of detained families.

But Byrne argues that even if the Obama administration shortens the time families are detained, “children will still suffer during their weeks in detention.”

“This is a preventable and unnecessary trauma that is being inflicted on children and their families, many of whom have already faced severe hardship fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries,” she added. “The government has the capacity and the tools to implement other measures, such as less costly community-based alternative to detention programs, which have proven successful in ensuring appearance in court and can also provide necessary social support to children and families.”

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