By Micah Danney
Law360 (March 9, 2023, 8:05 PM EST) — Days after reports began to break that the Biden administration is considering detaining migrant families that enter the U.S. unlawfully, immigration attorney Shalyn Fluharty recalled a 14-year-old girl she represented who she said tried to hang herself in detention. Speaking at a video press conference with other immigration advocates on Thursday, Fluharty, who heads Americans for Immigrant Justice, said detention invariably causes psychological and physical damage to children and their parents. “Family detention is cruel. It is never and can never be fair, orderly or humane. The job of a detention guard or deportation officer is inherently in conflict with the job of protecting a child,” she said. The specter of family detentions has sparked an outcry from asylum seekers and their advocates, who have decried it as a return to Trump-era measures to deter immigration. Critics have rebuked President Joe Biden for reportedly considering a policy akin to the one he campaigned against in the 2020 election and ended in 2021. Immigration advocates say they are ready to bring court challenges to any family detention policy if enacted. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who has a background in clinical psychology, said that since she began visiting detention centers during the Obama administration in 2015 and through the “terrible Trump years,” she has heard stories of women attempting suicide because they couldn’t stand being penned up any longer. Others gave up their asylum claims to avoid remaining in detention until their cases were decided, she said. Children are 10 times more likely than adults to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from spending time in detention, Chu said, saying she strongly opposed any such measures Biden may be considering. “Detention causes immediate and lifelong harms and toxic stress to children, resulting in depression, anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the rigid structure and control of detention breaks down the parent-child relationship as children look to their parents for their sense of safety and security, but in those detention centers do not find any,” she said. The concerns echo those expressed on Wednesday by an internist and a psychiatrist who have advised the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on harms detention has inflicted on families. In a letter to Biden via the Government Accountability Project, physician Scott Allen and psychiatrist Pamela McPherson said they were “gravely concerned” about the reports, saying the agency’s facilities are “systemically incapable of meeting minimum standards of care” for children. They addressed reports that the Biden administration has discussed only short-term detentions of families, saying duration matters little. “Shorter lengths of detention did not sufficiently mitigate the harmful conditions that we observed and their deleterious consequences; most of the harms we documented were in families detained less than 20 days,” the medical professionals said. “Indeed, the medical literature confirms that no amount of time spent in detention is safe for children.” They warned the administration of “imminent harm” to children and families if any form of detention were to be implemented. “No amount of programming can ameliorate the harms created by the very act of confining children to detention centers,” Allen and McPherson said in their letter. On Thursday, Chu said that detaining families serves little purpose “other than cruelty.” Humane alternatives like paroling asylum seekers and providing them with community-based services are known to be effective and more cost-efficient, she said. Case management for a paroled family costs the government $30 per day, she said, compared to $320 per day for each family member held in a detention center. Fluharty noted her involvement in legal challenges to the Trump administration’s border policies, including its decisions to eliminate gender-based asylum claims for women fleeing domestic violence, block the safe third-country transit rule, and use U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents as asylum officers despite lacking that position’s authority and training. She said any return to policies that pose dangers or violate the rights of people entering the U.S. could face a host of court challenges. “We have been here before. We have data and statistics that unequivocally confirm that family detention is unnecessary, and there are clear alternative solutions,” Fluharty said. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.