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DHS Argues It Has Evidence That Locking Up Immigrant Families Deters Migration. One Problem: It’s So Wrong.

Mass Incarceration
Mass Incarceration
Eunice Lee,
Detention Attorney,
ACLU, Immigrants' Rights Project
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September 26, 2014

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to claim both the incredible and the disgraceful: that Central American mothers and children fleeing danger pose a “national security” threat to the United States and must be locked away.

Relying on a decade-old decision of former Attorney General John Ashcroft called “Matter of D-J-,” DHS says immigrant families seeking asylum must be imprisoned and denied bond to send a “deterrent” message to others. But the agency isn’t content with hiding behind that Bush-era decision: It wants scientific backing, too.

Citing a report out of Vanderbilt University, DHS claims its policy of detaining immigrant families as “deterrence” is supported empirically by painstaking research. The study, according to DHS’s reading, demonstrates that if released, women and their young children would supposedly become part of an “active migration network,” encouraging others to flood across the Southwest border.

But guess what? The report’s own authors vehemently disagree.

When contacted by ACLU, Dr. Jonathan Hiskey, a professor of political science and one of the principal authors of the report, expressed “complete surprise” at DHS’s reliance on his study. As he put it, “Neither my report nor any empirical study that I know of supports DHS’s views on active migration networks and the detention of these women and children.” And he confirmed that his co-authors agree.

Dr. Hiskey felt so strongly about correcting the record that he wrote a sworn statement of fact supporting the release of these families.

In his detailed affidavit, Dr. Hiskey calls out DHS for its “tremendous leap in logic” and “very superficial understanding of the actual operation of such migration networks.” As he explains, the term “active migration networks,” also known simply as “the friend and family effect,” refers to the social science finding that people tend to migrate where their friends and families are living stable lives. Dr. Hiskey concludes that women and children seeking asylum are in fact among the least likely to form part of such networks, as their situation here remains precarious.

Detaining them to prevent migration networks, it turns out, simply makes no sense.

But imprisoning mothers and their children to send a message to others violates the Constitution and goes against our deepest moral commitments. DHS’s hollow assertions of “national security” do little to justify, and even less to hide, the manifest wrongs of such a policy. The Obama Administration should stop arguing that Matter of D-J- permits the reprehensible detention of families. Or better yet, it should immediately stop detaining Central American women and children seeking our protection in the first place.

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