Family immigration detention in the United States

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Family detention is the detention of multiple family members together in an immigration detention context. In the U.S. they are referred to as family detention camps,[1] family detention centers,[2] or family detention facilities.[3]

Families crossing the United States border without a visa or other papers demonstrating they are admissible to the country are currently subject to detention by Customs and Border Protection. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines only those children traveling with their parents or legal guardians as part of "family units" and all other children as "unaccompanied minors."[4] Adults traveling with children are required by Customs and Border Protection to verify their legal or biological parentage, and if they cannot, the children are deemed unaccompanied.[5] As a result, children traveling with grandparents, adult siblings, and aunts and uncles are separated and referred to the Unaccompanied Alien Children program.[4] Since 2017, the government separated some children from their parents as well under a family separation policy, although this policy was officially rescinded in June 2018. As of December 2021, under the Biden administration, family immigration detention is no longer being used.[6][7]


In 2014 the Obama administration opened new family detention centers in the United States. At the time there was only one government-operated facility, which was located York County, Pennsylvania.[8]

In 2015, intact families were not regularly separated at the United States border.[9]

In February 2016, the designation Family Unit Aliens or FMUA was introduced.[10] The majority of families apprehended at the border were not linked to fraud according to an official within U.S. Customs and Border Protection.[11]

In July 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court's decision (in July 2015, by Judge Dolly Gee) to quickly release child migrants from family detention even when accompanied by a parent.[12]

In 2017 and 2018, the number of family units (groups of at least one adult and at least one child) from Guatemala and Honduras detained by the U.S. increased, as families fled gang violence and instability in Central America.[11]

In March 2021, shortly after Joe Biden became President, ICE announced that no families were being held at the Berks County Residential Center any more, and that the detention center would no longer be used for family detention. The other two family detention centers, Dilley and Karnes, were now to be used only for holding families for short, three-day periods.[13][14] In December 2021, Axios reported that ICE would stop engaging in family detention for the time being, and officials confirmed this.[6][7]

Families detained by Customs and Border Protection[edit]

Overcrowding of families observed by the DHS Office of the Inspector General on June 11, 2019, at Border Patrol’s Weslaco, TX, Station.

Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, holds immigrant families after their initial arrest. Under departmental standards, CBP should transfer them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement within 72 hours, but in 2019, many such families are being held for weeks in CBP custody.[15] On June 13, 2019, the government reported that 4,865 members of "family units" were held by the CBP.[15]

Family detention centers in the United States[edit]

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with several facilities to detain families with children. The General Accounting Office reports that the 3 active facilities have a combined capacity of 3,326 people.[16] Active family detention centers include:

  • South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. This privately owned center is operated by CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America).[17] The facility can hold 2,400 people and had 2,000 inmates in early June 2018.[18] As of June 18, 2019, the Dilley facility held 1,628 family members in detention.[19]
  • Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. This county-operated facility opened in 2011[20] as a 96-bed facility with space for 200 people. It was 59% full in early June 2018.[18] ICE reported 9 people being held in April 2019.[21] In June 2019, Pennsylvania's Auditor General opened an investigation into reports of sexual abuse, inadequate health care, and other human rights abuses in the facility.[22] In March 2021, the detention center was shut down for family detention.[13][14]
  • Karnes County Residential Center (KCRC) in Karnes City, Texas. This privately operated center is run by the GEO Group. The facility opened in 2012, and was designated a family residential unit in 2014.[23] The facility can hold 830 people and was 66% full in early June 2018.[18] In March 2019, ICE moved to repurpose the Karnes County facility to primarily hold adult women; its family detention population was reduced from 563 people in early March to 25 people in April.[24][21] In June 2019, ICE reported that the facility would be adults-only "at least through July."[19]

Former family detention facilities[edit]

Former family detention centers include:

  • T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas. This privately-owned center is operated by CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America).[25][26] The facility opened in May 2006, and housed 400 immigrants including 170 children in February 2007.[27] ICE used the facility for family detention until 2009. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in Federal court objecting to conditions at Hutto. Under terms of a 2009 settlement, ICE no longer holds children at Hutto, but continues to detain adult immigrant women at the facility.[28]
  • Artesia Family Residential Center in Artesia, New Mexico. A government-operated facility on the premises of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center that operated from June 2014 to December 2014, with space for 700 people.[29] On November 20, 2014, the government announced it would transfer remaining detainees to the center in Karnes City, Texas.[30] During the facility's operation, the Department of Homeland Security implemented a "no bond or high bond" strategy to make it difficult for women to leave the facility while awaiting immigration hearings.[30]

Proposed family detention facilities[edit]

Border Patrol Tents in El Paso Texas on Hondo Pass 2019

Executive Order 13841, signed on June 20, 2018, instructs that, "The Secretary of Defense shall take all legally available measures to provide to the Secretary, upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law."[31] On June 21, the Department of Health and Human Services requested facilities to house migrant children. Pentagon spokesmen and a memorandum sent to Congress confirmed that the Department of Defense was preparing facilities at four military bases in Texas and Arkansas to house 20,000 "unaccompanied alien children."[32]

  • Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas—On June 25, 2018 the Associated Press reported that Fort Bliss had been chosen to house migrant families.[33]
  • A large tent facility was being built at the Border Patrol Station in Northeast El Paso on Hondo Pass in April 2019.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Shame of America's Family Detention Camps". New York Times. 4 February 2015.
  2. ^ "Inside the migrant family detention center in McAllen, Texas". USA Today. 17 June 2018.
  3. ^ "Immigrant children seen held in fenced cages at border facility". Seattle Times. 18 June 2018. a family detention facility in McAllen, Texas
  4. ^ a b Burnett, John (December 23, 2018). "What 'Unaccompanied Alien Children' Means". Retrieved 2019-06-26.
  5. ^ Linton, Julie M.; Griffin, Marsha; Shapiro, Alan J.; Pediatrics, Council on Community (2017-05-01). "Detention of Immigrant Children". Pediatrics. 139 (5): –20170483. doi:10.1542/peds.2017-0483. ISSN 0031-4005. PMID 28289140. Retrieved 2019-06-26.
  6. ^ a b Knight, Stef (December 16, 2021). "Scoop: Biden to stop holding undocumented families in detention centers". Axios. Retrieved December 18, 2021.
  7. ^ a b "Biden administration halts immigrant family detention for now". Los Angeles Times. December 17, 2021. Retrieved December 18, 2021.
  8. ^ "Administration to open detention centers for families caught crossing the border". 20 June 2014. The administration did not immediately say how many people the new family detention centers will house or where they will be located. The government currently operates only one such facility, in York County, Pennsylvania, with space for fewer than 100 people.
  9. ^ LaCapria, Kim (18 June 2018). "Was the 'Law to Separate Families' Passed in 1997 or 'by Democrats'?". The rumors correctly suggested that "family detention" as a whole came before the Trump administration, but as of August 2015 intact families at the border were rarely separated.
  10. ^ Vitiello, Ronald (23 February 2016). "The Unaccompanied Children Crisis: Does the Administration Have a Plan to Stop the Border Surge and Adequately Monitor the Children?". Apprehensions of Family Unit Aliens (FMUA), consisting of children who are apprehended with one or more parent or legal guardian, were approximately 68,445 in FY 2014; in FY 2015, CBP apprehended over 39,838. FMUA generally kept together unless one member of the family group is deemed harmful to another member.
  11. ^ a b Kates, Graham (20 June 2018). "Migrant children at the border – the facts". CBS News. Between October 2017 and May 2018, 99.75 percent of family units apprehended by at the border were not linked to fraud (i.e. pretending to be a parent). A Customs and Border Protection official said Tuesday that out of 59,113 total family unit apprehensions during that period, there were 148 cases of alleged fraud.
  12. ^ Carcamo, Cindy (6 July 2016). "U.S. must release child migrants held in family detention, court says". President Obama's immigration policy was dealt another blow Wednesday when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's opinion that child migrants who are accompanied by a parent and currently in family detention should be quickly released. It left the fate of the parents up in the air, however. The case centers on a 1997 legal settlement — known as the Flores agreement — that set legal requirements for the housing of children seeking asylum or in the country illegally. ee In July 2015, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles found the government had violated key provisions of the court settlement that put restrictions on the detention of migrant children.
  13. ^ a b Hall, Peter (March 3, 2021). "Last family released from Berks County immigration detention center". The Morning Call. Retrieved December 18, 2021.
  14. ^ a b Merchant, Nomaan (March 6, 2021). "US Says It Will Stop Using Berks Co. Detention Center to Hold Migrant Families. The detention center in Pennsylvania will instead be used by ICE to hold adults, the government said". NBC Philadelphia. Retrieved December 18, 2021.
  15. ^ a b Lind, Dara (2019-06-25). "The horrifying conditions facing kids in border detention, explained". Vox. Retrieved 2019-06-26.
  16. ^ United States Government Accountability Office (2018). IMMIGRATION DETENTION: Opportunities Exist to Improve Cost Estimates (PDF). p. 18.
  17. ^ "South Texas immigration detention center set to open". 15 December 2014. Retrieved 19 December 2014.
  18. ^ a b c "Feds don't have enough beds for migrant families". POLITICO. Retrieved 2018-06-22.
  19. ^ a b "'Willful Recklessness': Trump Pushes for Indefinite Family Detention". Rewire.News. Retrieved 2019-07-03.
  20. ^ "Inside Pa.'s ICE Immigrant Family Detention Center". NBC 10 Philadelphia. Retrieved 2018-06-21.
  21. ^ a b Small, Julie (April 13, 2019). "Detention Beds for Immigrant Families Nearly Empty Amid Surge in Border Crossings". KQED. Retrieved April 14, 2019.
  22. ^ Winfrey, Katiera (2019-06-13). "Pa. auditor general to examine ICE detention center in Berks". WFMZ. Retrieved 2019-07-03.
  23. ^ "Here's where immigrant families in Texas could be housed after Trump's executive order". Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Retrieved 2018-06-21.
  24. ^ Sacchetti, Maria; Miroff, Nick (2019-03-29). "ICE cuts family detention capacity, is likely to release immigrant families directly into the United States - The Washington Post". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-07-03.
  25. ^ "Facility Locations List". Corrections Corporation of America. Archived from the original on 2007-11-11. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
  26. ^ Don Hutto Family Residential Facility Archived 2011-06-22 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Blumenthal, Ralph (February 10, 2007). "U.S. Gives Tour of Family Detention Center That Critics Liken to a Prison". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-06-21.
  28. ^ Kravets, Lauren (2017-12-04). "After sex abuse claims at T. Don Hutto detention facility, advocates want answers". KXAN. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  29. ^ Caldwell, Alicia A. (November 18, 2014). "U.S. to close immigrant detention center in Artesia". The Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  30. ^ a b Hylton, Wil S. (February 4, 2015). "The Shame of America's Family Detention Camps". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  31. ^ "Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation". Retrieved 2018-06-20 – via National Archives.
  32. ^ Shear, Michael; Cooper, Helene; Benner, Kate (June 21, 2018). "U.S. Prepares to House Up to 20,000 Migrants on Military Bases". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-06-24.
  33. ^ "Migrant Detainees to Be Housed at 2 Texas Military Bases". 2018-06-25. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  34. ^ "New immigrant holding facility could be operational in El Paso by May 1, CBP says". El Paso Times. 20 April 2019. Retrieved 2019-06-27.