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Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Freedom for Families Act on April 29. Photo: Berks County Family Detention Center. By John Moore/Getty Images
Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal and Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Freedom for Families Act on April 29. Photo: Berks County Family Detention Center. By John Moore/Getty Images

Freedom For Families Act would put an end to tax-funded immigrant family detention centers

Bill proponents argue there is no humane way to incarcerate families and children.

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In his first 100 days, President Joe Biden has not delivered on a key immigration issue: to end for-profit immigration detention centers. 

While he signed an executive order on Jan. 29 to terminate federal private prison contracts — an action that would ultimately put an end to private prisons — the order falls short of addressing racial inequities. Detention centers are an extension of a mass-incarceration crisis, and especially during COVID-19, they are just as dangerous as prisons.

In response, Rep. Raúl Grijalva introduced a bill to end for-profit prisons and immigration detention centers. Instead of imprisoning families for seeking asylum, the bill would reinstate family case management programs that are more successful in safely and efficiently guiding families through the asylum process.

Until this bill makes progress in the House, other lawmakers are pursuing similar legislation measures. 

On Thursday, April 29, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Progressive Caucus, are making moves to bar the continued spending of tax dollars on immigrant family prisons, and put an end to the detention of families. 

The companion bill, known as the Freedom For Families Act, has been endorsed by The Family Liberation Abolitionist Network, a newly formed network of organizations and individuals across the country advocating to end family detention. The local Shut Down Berks Coalition, the organization that has spent months advocating to end immigrant and family detention in Pennsylvania, is part of the network.

It would ensure that no federal dollars are spent on operations or the construction of family detention families, and would phase out family detention centers within 30 days.

According to the bill summary, it would transfer funds currently used to operate family detention centers to fund community-based non-detention programs like the Family Case Management Program halted by the Trump administration. 

In January, during a virtual roundtable to reintroduce the Roadmap to Freedom Resolution, a bill to develop a more equitable immigration process, Rep. Jayapal said that because the nation criminalizes immigrants and views migration through a criminal justice lens, these sorts of private detention centers must end. 

“But first you need to reduce the numbers of people that are actually being detained, and then you put in place the alternatives. So that’s how we envision that, but that requires the full reforms of the policies of immigration,” she said.

In his first 100 days, the Biden administration has proposed ending prolonged detention for migrants, but no announcements have been made regarding investments in case management systems to process migrants out of detention centers. 

As they currently stand, these facilities are similar to the prison system. Not completely, but in how migrants are housed in close quarters, contributing to heightened rates of COVID-19 infection, which have been found to be worse than prison rates.

A recent New York times study found that ICE detention facilities had an average infection rate five times that of prisons and 20 times that of the general population.

It says this is for a number of reasons. 

ICE detention sites have little protections to prevent illness, due to situations ranging from increased health violations, to weak implementation of CDC safety measures and lack of COVID-19 testing. 

A UCLA “Behind Bars” study also found that such influx of cases in detention facilities contribute to a ripple effect in surrounding communities.

They’re some of the many reasons why Rep. Jayapal and Senator Merkley are pursuing the Freedom For Families Act. 

“There is simply no need to detain families. We must end this practice for good and invest in community-based alternatives,” Rep. Jayapal said introducing the bill, adding she will continue to work towards “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.”

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