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What is Family Detention?

The U.S. government currently confines asylum-seeking women and children in large scale detention facilities. Immigrant mothers and children who are apprehended together at the U.S./Mexico border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are placed into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.  ICE places some immigrant families in family detention facilities located in the United States. Family detention facilities are described by ICE as “residential facilities” with families considered to be “residents;” in the facilities, however, mothers and their children have limited freedoms and are forced to live in a restrictive detention setting. While at these facilities, mothers and their children fight deportation in their immigration proceedings. As many of these mothers[i] and children[ii] are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, many are seeking asylum.

Where Are Families Being Detained?

There are currently three facilities in the United States that detain immigrant families. The Karnes County Residential Center (“Karnes”), located in Karnes City, Texas, has 530 beds. The South Texas Family Residential Center (“Dilley”) in Dilley, Texas has 2,400 beds. A third facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania has 90 beds. There is an expansion planned for the family detention center in Karnes as well as a recent extension of the contract for Dilley until 2021.[iii]

How Much Does it Cost Taxpayers to Detain Immigrant Families?

The two family detention facilities in Dilley and Karnes City Texas are operated by for-profit companies. Dilley is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, recently rebranded to the name CoreCivic,[iv] and Karnes is operated by GEO Corporation. The reliance on for-profit contractors to operate family detention facilities reflects a larger trend in the immigrant detention system in the United States, which costs taxpayers over $2 billion per year to maintain. Currently, it costs $161.36/day/individual to detain immigrant family members.[v] This means it costs taxpayers approximately $480/day to detain an asylum-seeking mother with her two children in a family detention facility.

Catholic Social Teaching and Family Detention

Immigrant detention is an explicit and longstanding concern of the Catholic Church. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have addressed immigrant detention in Responsibility Rehabilitation and Restoration, A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, stating: “We bishops have a long history of supporting the rights of immigrants. The special circumstance of immigrants in detention centers is of particular concern. [The government] uses a variety of methods to detain immigrants some of them clearly inappropriate.”[vi] Additionally, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, then-Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, wrote to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson in 2015 opposing family detention, declaring that “it is inhumane to house young mothers with children in restrictive detention facilities as if they are criminals.” Recently, other Bishops have spoken out against proposed expansion of family detention facilities in South Texas.[vii]

Why Is Detaining Immigrant Families Particularly Harmful?

A majority of the families who have been apprehended at the U.S./Mexico border are fleeing extreme violence and persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These women and children seek safety and protection in the United States, risking increasingly dangerous journeys north to do so. Instead of receiving refuge, however, ICE places these families in confining detention facilities. This practice continues despite the fact that detaining children is psychologically and physically damaging and is against international human rights law and general child welfare principles. Many of these detained mothers and children have legitimate protection claims meriting a grant of asylum relief as demonstrated by the rate at which they are able to prove credible fear of persecution.[viii] Thus, these vulnerable women and children should be offered protection not detention.

Are There Alternatives to Detaining Families?

Yes. Instead of relying on for-profit contractors, the government should move to utilize alternatives to detention (ATDs) which are more humane and cost-effective. ATDs that utilize unique case management-based community support models provide legal and social services as well as community support to vulnerable individuals such as asylum seekers, torture victims, pregnant women, families with young children, primary caregivers, elderly, and victims of crime who would otherwise be detained. This type of program offers unique data collection, case management experience, and customized case-by-case evaluation methodology implemented by expert staff to ensure humane treatment and compliance with immigration legal requirements. Over the years, there have been several examples of effective community-based ATD programs.[ix]

What Can I Do to Combat Family Detention?

  • Educate your community about family detention by sharing this backgrounder and hosting an event at your parish to discuss family detention;
  • Volunteer with the CARA Project to assist arriving Central American families;
  • Contact your Representative and Senators and urge them to defund family detention facilities; and
  • Read CLINIC’s pamphlet on additional ways to help Central American families.
[i] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Women on the Run (2015).
[ii] UNHCR, Children on the Run (2014).
[iii] Jamie McGee, CCA Announces ICE Contract Extension, The Tennessean (Oct. 18, 2016),
[iv] Dave Boucher, CCA Change Name to CoreCivic Amid Ongoing Scrutiny, The Tennessean (Oct. 28, 2016),
[v] Department of Homeland Security, Budget-in-Brief FY 2017, (last visited Nov. 14, 2016).
[vi] Responsibility Rehabilitation and Restoration, A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, A Statement of the Catholic Bishops of the United States (Nov. 15, 2000).
[vii] Bishop Calls for County to Abandon Plans for Family Detention Facility, South Texas Catholic (June 10, 2016),
[viii] Asylum Division, Family Facilities – Credible Fear, USCIS, (last visited Nov. 14, 2016).
[ix] Alternative to Detention Programs, CLINIC, (last visited Nov. 14, 2016).


Last Updated: 2/6/17