Congressional Democrats tour detention center
Congressional Democrats tour a detention center near San Diego in 2018. Courtesy Rep. Nancy Chu

A UC San Diego study of asylum-seeking families finds over a third experienced sub-standard conditions or mistreatment while being held in immigration detention facilities along the border.

The study, conducted by the university’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center and released Wednesday, is based on data from 7,300 asylum-seeking families who were admitted into the United States and then came through an emergency shelter organized by the San Diego Rapid Response Network between October 2018 and June 2019.

“These data make vivid what asylum-seekers experience while they’re being held in immigration detention,” said the study’s lead author Tom K. Wong, associate professor of political science and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center.

“We previously only had glimpses. Now we have systematic evidence to support anecdotal accounts of sub-standard conditions in detention and the abusive treatment of those detained along the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s worse than we thought,” he said.

The 7,300 families represented 17,000 individuals, including 7,900 children aged 5 years or younger. The average length of time they spent in detention was 3.4 days.

According to interviews with the heads of households as they were admitted to the San Diego emergency shelter, 35% had faced issues related to poor conditions in immigration detention, abusive treatment in detention, or untreated medical problems. Those issues included:

  • 62% reported issues related to food and water, including being fed frozen or spoiled food, not having enough to eat, not being given formula for infants, not being given water, or having to drink dirty water
  • 46% reported poor sleeping conditions, including overcrowding and confinement
  • 35% reported issues related to hygiene, such as not being able to shower, not having access to clean or sanitary toilets, or not being able to brush their teeth
  • 12% reported some form of mistreatment while in immigration detention, including verbal abuse, physical abuse and confiscation of personal property
  • 11% reported medical issues while in detention.

The majority of the families studied came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but 25 other countries were represented. In fact, Spanish was not the native language of 20% of the asylum-seeking families, causing significant translation challenges while in federal custody. Among the others languages spoken were Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Vietnamese and Romanian.

“From deplorable conditions in immigration detention to experiencing verbal and physical abuse to basic issues related to translation and interpretation, the data show that the U.S. is failing to live up to its obligation to treat people humanely, especially those who have experienced trauma. Clearly, we can do better,” said Norma Chávez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, a core partner of the migrant shelter team.

The San Diego migrant family shelter, now operated by Jewish Family Service of San Diego, has emerged as a national model, providing a safe haven while families released from federal custody transition through San Diego to other U.S. destinations

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.