Merkley, Jayapal, Booker, Markey, Wyden Introduce Legislation to Protect Families’ Freedom, Human Right to Not Be Traumatized

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley today teamed up with U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-07) and U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Senator Wyden (D-OR) to introduce the Freedom for Families Act, which would ensure that no child or family is threatened by detention, separation, or emotional trauma because they are seeking safety in America.

Studies have shown that children in family detention can suffer mental health impacts—difficulty regulating emotions, achieving developmental milestones, and forming healthy relationships. These children also suffer from increased rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and are at heightened risk of suicide and self-harm.

“Americans have been loud and clear: they do not want their tax dollars spent on the infliction of emotional trauma on human beings at our border,” said Senator Merkley. “There is no humane way to detain children and families, and we already know that there are alternatives to detention centers that are equally successful in getting families to their asylum hearings. I’m gratified that President Biden and DHS Secretary Mayorkas have signaled strong support for reforming our immigration system, and will continue to do all that I can to ensure that new policies include the closing of these dangerous and inhumane facilities.”

“Families belong together and free — not in cages, not in detention, not separated,” said Congresswoman Jayapal. “There is simply no need to detain families. We must end this practice for good and invest in community-based alternatives. I am proud to introduce the Freedom for Families Act today as we commit to reducing our nation’s reliance on immigration detention, and continue the work necessary to eliminate the use of private detention facilities, repeal mandatory detention, and transform the entire immigration system into a humane one that protects the rights, dignity, and wellbeing of everyone.”

Specifically, the Freedom for Families Act would ensure that no federal dollars are spent on operations or construction of family detention families, and phase out family detention centers within 30 days. Additionally, the legislation would transfer funds currently used to operate family detention centers for the implementation and development of appropriate community-based non-detention programs, such as the successful Family Case Management Program that the Trump administration ended, and instruct the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Mayorkas to review the feasibility of transferring case management programs out of the purview of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and DHS.

Merkley has long led the charge in Congress to reunite families and hold the Trump administration accountable for its failure to do so, after first exposing the horrific child separation policy in June 2018, when the police were called to prevent him from investigating a huge former Walmart turned child detention center in Brownsville, Texas. Merkley returned to the border an additional six times, including to personally investigate conditions at Dilley and Karnes; visited Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America; and released a detailed report outlining how President Trump used federal agencies to turn away thousands of people who have a legal right to ask for refuge within the U.S. from gang violence, murder, rape, and extortion in their home countries.  

The Freedom for Families Act is supported by National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Amnesty International, Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), Freedom for Immigrants, Save the Children, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), Focus First on Children, Human Rights First, Refugees International, Government Accountability Project, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Church World Service, AslyumWorks, Alianza Americas, University of the District of Columbia Law School’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, Witness at the Border, Make the Road of New York and Pennsylvania, Children’s Defense Fund – Texas, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team: Silver Spring MD, Indivisible Sacramento, Aldea – The People’s Justice Center, Social Justice Committee of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Bridges Faith Imitative, Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services, HIAS, MomsRising/MamásConPoder, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, RACIES, Family Liberation Abolitionist Network, Shut Down Berks Coalition, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Girasol Texas, Haitian Bridge Alliance, Tsuru for Solidarity, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Suenos Sin Fronteras, Detention Watch Network, Free Migration Protect, CASA Pennsylvania. The legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA-37), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR-03), Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA-11), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY-13), Mondaire Jones (D-NY-17), Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), James P. McGovern (D-MA-02), Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA-32), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC-AL), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA-20), Mark Pocan (D-WI-02) , Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-07), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-09), Adam Smith (D-WA-09), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI-13), Ritchie Torres (D-NY-15), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ-12), and Peter Welch (D-VT-AL).

“Amnesty International USA strongly supports the ‘Freedom for Families Act’ and urges its swift passage by Congress.  DHS should shut down all family detention facilities and immediately release all families in immigration detention.  Families locked up by DHS have come to the U.S. seeking humanitarian protection, having fled targeted violence and persecution and seeking safety. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has noted that immigration detention of children puts them at risk of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment prohibited under international law. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has expressed that even short-term immigration detention of children may be cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment because child migrants are ‘at greater risk of torture and mistreatment owing to their vulnerability and unique needs,’” said Joanne Lin, National Director, Advocacy and Government Affairs, Amnesty International USA.

“There is no justification for jailing immigrants, much less parents and children. Sen. Merkley’s bill pioneers a humane response to process families with dignity, rather than cruel and indefinite detention,” said Azadeh Erfani, Senior Policy Analyst, Amnesty International.

“The detention of children is a traumatic experience which clearly goes against the best interest of the child. That’s why Save the Children Action Network (SCAN) commends Senator Merkley for reintroducing the Freedom for Families Act, which would reallocate funds from family detention centers to community-based alternative-to-detention programs, such as the Family Case Management Program,” said Santiago Mueckay, Manager of Federal Government Relations at SCAN. “Moving away from family detention programs is a crucial first step toward respecting the unalienable rights of children, and we applaud Senator Merkley for his leadership in this important cause.”

“We commend Senator Merkley on this important legislation which would finally end the cruel and unnecessary detention of families seeking refuge in the United States. Many survivors of Japanese American incarceration during World War II have likened the incarceration of migrant families to that dark period in our nation’s history,” said John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“Jailing asylum-seeking families has been a stain on the conscience of our nation for far too long. We applaud Senator Merkley’s dedication to ending this abhorrent practice. Congress must pass the Freedom for Families Act as soon as possible to prevent any further trauma on children,” said Jennifer Quigley, Director of Refugee Advocacy at Human Rights First.

“Refugees International applauds this legislation for prohibiting funding for family detention—which is a stain on U.S. policy—and for supporting a more humane approach to asylum seeking families,” said Eric Schwartz, President of Refugees International.

“The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is [We are] honored to endorse this legislation, which recognizes that families should not be detained and that detention is never in the best interest of children. We look forward to working with Senator Merkley on this and other legislation to ensure fair processes and to develop community-based programs for immigrant children and their families seeking safety in the United States,” said Maria Woltjen, Executive Director, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

“Witness at the Border endorses Sen. Merkley’s bill, the Freedom for Families Act. The legislation recognizes an eternal truth: if you build prisons you will fill them with prisoners. Migration is not a crime, and the people who migrate to survive are not criminals. Thank you, Senator,” said Joshua Rubin, Founder of Witness at the Border.

“The Freedom for Families Act represents a welcome addition to our nation’s shifting immigration policy,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “We’ve long advocated that families belong together, and Senator Merkley calls attention to another critical point: that families deserve their freedom. Ending investment in family detention and shifting it to community-based case management programs isn’t just the humane, compassionate move – it’s also the fiscally responsible choice. Our work at LIRS pioneering alternatives to detention, reuniting separated families and delivering case management services helped families receive community-based support, while also ensuring high rates of immigration compliance at far less a cost to taxpayers. We applaud Senator Merkley for championing sound policy aligned with our nation’s core values of family unity and humanitarianism.”

“Our clients, whistleblowers Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson, medical and mental health subject matter experts in detention health for DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, have been warning about the harms to immigrant children in detention for years. When the previous administration increased the numbers in family detention in the summer of 2018, knowing that systemic weaknesses in the provision of care at family residential facilities that they had documented in investigations would put children at imminent risk of harm, they escalated their concerns to the Office of Inspector General and Congress to prevent foreseeable harm—warnings that were tragically prescient. The Freedom for Families Act introduced by Senator Merkley and Congresswoman Jayapal, who have zealously sought to address abusive consequences of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy, will end the unnecessary practice of family detention. We urge Congress to heed the warnings of not only the government’s own experts, but the medical community at large, by swiftly passing this legislation,” said Dana Gold, Senior Counsel, Government Accountability Project, counsel for Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson.

“As people of faith and a nation of immigrants, we are called to love our neighbor. Immigrant families have inherent dignity and should not be subjected to the inhumane, unjust conditions of family detention centers. It is immoral to use our nation’s shared resources to inflict further harm on families seeking an escape from violence and economic struggles,” said Sr. Simon Campbell, SSS, NETWORK Lobby for Social Justice.

Full text of the legislation is available here.

A summary of the bill is available here.