Detaining Families: A Study of Asylum Adjudication in Family Detention

Detaining Families: A Study of Asylum Adjudication in Family Detention



The United States currently detains more families seeking asylum than any nation in the world, but little is known about how these families fare in the immigration court process. In this Article, we analyze government data from all immigration court cases initiated between 2001 and 2016 to provide the first empirical analysis of asylum adjudication in family detention. We find that families have been detained in remote locations, have faced language barriers in accessing the courts, and, despite valiant pro bono efforts to assist them, have routinely gone to court without legal representation. Only half of the family members who remained detained found counsel, fewer than 2% spoke English, and 93% had their hearings in detention adjudicated remotely over video conference, rather than in a traditional face-to-face courtroom setting.

In addition, the evidence we uncover documents the important, and underappreciated, role that immigration courts have played in limiting the overdetention of migrant families by immigration authorities at the border. During the period studied, immigration judges reversed half of the negative credible fear decisions of asylum officers and systematically lowered the bond amount set by detention officers. We also find high compliance rates among family members who were released from detention: family members seeking asylum attended their immigration court hearings in 96% of cases since 2001. Finally, we document significant regional variation in case outcomes among family members who were released from detention, including whether family members obtained attorneys and won their asylum cases. These and other findings are meaningful to current policy debates regarding the role of immigration courts in maintaining due process in asylum proceedings and the appropriate use of detention to manage the migration of families fleeing violence in their home countries.

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