Family Detention

On Family Detention and the Causes of Migration

United Methodist Women’s position on family detention and the causes of migration from Latin America and Mexico

On Family Detention and the Causes of Migration
At the rally to #EndFamilyDetention in Dilley, Texas.

On July 24, 2015, the U.S. District Court in California issued a ruling on whether a Supreme Court case known as the “Flores” decision is applicable to the current detention of children in family detention centers. The decision rules that the U.S. administration’s family detention program violates parts of the 1997 Flores agreement on detaining child migrants, and that families should be released as quickly as possible. Below is our position on the current causes of migration from Latin America and Mexico.

United Methodist Women, a U.S. faith-based women’s organization of over 800,000 members, has been engaged in partnerships in Central America and Mexico for over 100 years. When families and children began crossing the border last summer in large numbers, our members responded. They opened shelters in churches, prepared meals, provided clothing and supported legal support. We are well aware that this is a systemic problem. Members have mobilized this year to end family detention and to educate about the root causes of the refugee crisis.

Why People Come

Women and children coming to our borders from Central America are fleeing poverty, crime and violence at home. The enormous numbers of cases in which applicants have established “credible fear” show that they fled for their lives. Central America faces a “perfect storm” of poverty and hunger, lack of jobs, weak state institutions, and alliances between transnational crime and drug trafficking organizations and local gangs.

Addressing Root Causes

The Administration has sought aid for Central America that would “address the underlying causes of illegal migration in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador” — the so-called "push factors" that Secretary Johnson lists in his recent letter on family detention. We support efforts to prioritize job-creation, particularly for youth, along with anti-poverty programs and democratic institution-building, though more is needed. The climate of impunity, state complicity, the lack of secure protection programs and general poverty must also be addressed. Our sister Methodist churches in the region have affirmed the urgent need for job creation and economic programs that build human security, not only national security. This needs to be accompanied by trade and economic policy that supports local producers over transnational capital, enabling them to remain on their land and in their communities.

The Need for Asylum

Secretary Johnson notes that the U.S. government has worked with Mexico in response to “last summer’s spike,” and as a result, apprehensions on our southern border are down. Yet this is not cause for celebration. The Washington Office on Latin America notes that due to U.S. pressure, Mexico now detains more Central American Migrants than the United States.

International law is clear about the requirement to receive asylum seekers. The U.S. should not be seeking ways to prevent woman and children from filing asylum petitions, nor incarcerating them as they wait for hearings. In addition, all should be provided with legal aid to process their claims.

Further, Secretary Johnson recognizes the risks that Central American young people and their families face. He notes that the U.S. government has established an “in-country refugee processing in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, for the children of those lawfully present in the United States.” The program is very limited in eligibility. It creates long wait times for youth in crisis whose lives may be in immediate danger. Eligibility requirements are extensive — including a lawfully present parent in the U.S. who petitions for the child. The child has four interviews, and the process includes DNA tests for parent and child. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch asserts that “you cannot have a refugee inside their home country. A person who has a well-founded fear of persecution cannot avail themselves of this program.” As demonstrated by the very low number of applications, this program does not present a solution.

The urgency of Central America’s humanitarian crisis has not ended — it has merely been displaced to Mexico and other countries in the region, and “tens of thousands of vulnerable children and families are getting sent back into harm’s way without getting the chance to seek protection or refugee status,” according to Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America.

Asylum lawyers have noted multiple violations of due process for asylum seekers in Mexico, and few migrants have the opportunity to tell their stories before they are deported. Widespread crimes against migrants in Mexico, including human trafficking, kidnapping, and rape, continue unpunished. While the U.N., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights have called on Mexico to do more to protect vulnerable children and other migrants, the U.S. has been supplying Mexico with border security equipment and training. We must not decrease refugee flows through enforcement and repression.

Family Detention is Not the Answer

We should not be turning away asylum seekers nor should we be incarcerating women and children. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that “The detention of a child because of their or their parents’ migration status constitutes a child rights violation and always contravenes the principle of the best interests of the child. In this light, States should expeditiously and completely cease the detention of children on the basis of their immigration status.” States have thus been called upon to expeditiously and completely cease the immigration detention of children and their parents in the best interests of the child and allow children to remain with their family members and/or guardians. Not only is this international law, this is also U.S. law. The Flores Settlement Agreement makes it clear that children should not be detained indefinitely. They also should not be separated from their mothers.

United Methodist Women joins with faith groups in affirming that reforms to current family detention policies are inadequate. Family detention is immoral, illegal and must end. We call for programs that foster genuine human security in Central America as well as policies that embrace refugee and asylum seekers.

Harriett Jane Olson is General Secretary of United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 7/27/2015 11:00:00 PM


*Campaign to End Family Detention

*United Methodist Women Welcomes Court Decision on Family Detention  

*Global Migration and Immigration Rights


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Carol Barton, United Methodist Women Immigrant & Civil Rights Initiative
777 United Nations Plaza, 11th floor
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