This week nearly 400 human rights groups urged the Biden administration not to revive the controversial practice of migrant family detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Biden ended family detention when he took office two years ago but is now reportedly reconsidering it as part of a wider crackdown as his administration prepares to phase out the contested Trump-era Title 42 pandemic policy used to expel over 2 million migrants without due process at the southern border. We speak with Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, who says “the Biden administration has faltered and is going against all the promises that they made on the campaign trail.” We also speak with Mike Ishii, co-founder of Tsuru for Solidarity, which joined the call to stop family detention. He notes many Japanese Americans are still healing from the trauma of mass detention during World War II. “There’s an intersectional history here of always targeting communities of color and immigrant communities with this kind of state violence,” says Ishii.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This week, nearly 400 human rights groups are urging President Biden not to reinstate the controversial practice of migrant family detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. This comes amidst an intensified crackdown on asylum seekers as his administration prepares to phase out the contested Trump-era Title 42 pandemic policy used to expel over 2 million migrants without due process at the southern border.
On Thursday, a woman named Beatriz, who was held in the first ICE family detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, in 2014, spoke at a protest in Washington, D.C.
BEATRIZ: [translated] The detention causes irreparable trauma, especially when you have children who are growing and playing in a place where no one should be. People who are asking for asylum come to this country fighting for our lives. It is a human right that we all have the right to access. I could be here for hours, and I could share so many of the injustices that I saw when I was in detention. And still, in this process of so many years, the system is created to traumatize us and to violate our human rights and not to save lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Family detention was first used by ICE under the Obama administration, continued by President Trump, even after doctors contracted by Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties found the practice subjected thousands of families to abuse and trauma.
In 2019, Democracy Now! spoke to DHS whistleblower Dr. Scott Allen, who described conditions at the Artesia Family Detention Center.
DR. SCOTT ALLEN: Probably the most poignant examples that we documented is we looked at weights. I pulled the charts of every child there, and I looked at their weights across the course of their stay and was really surprised to see that a significant number of children, who probably entered the facility to some extent malnourished, given their perilous journeys, were not gaining weight in the facility, which is what you’d expect if it were a healthy and nurturing facility, but they were in fact losing weight, which is a really disturbing marker that we did not expect.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, that was 2019. This comes as the Los Angeles Times announced on Thursday it will no longer use the term “internment” to describe the mass incarceration of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Instead, they’ll use the words “incarceration,” “imprisonment” and “detention.” Eighty years ago, the Los Angeles Times actually campaigned to detain Japanese Americans during the war. It published a formal editorial apology in 2017.
For more, we’re joined in New York by two guests who are among those saying “never again” to family detention. Mike Ishii is the co-founder of Tsuru for Solidarity. His mother was incarcerated at the so-called Camp Harmony holding center in Washington state and then in Camp Minidoka in Idaho during World War II. Also with us, Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Silky, let’s begin with you. When President Biden first came into office, he pledged to end family detention and to pursue just, compassionate and humane immigration policies, drawing a very sharp contrast between what he planned to do as president and what President Trump did. Yet what’s happening right now?
SILKY SHAH: Hi, Amy. It’s wonderful to be here with you.
I mean, he’s doing the complete opposite. The truth is that Biden on the campaign trail, the Democrats under Trump were politically supportive of immigration. That was how they, like, put themselves out there. They very much said, “We don’t believe in family detention. We don’t believe in family separation.” And the complete opposite has happened. In fact, many of the Trump-era policies stayed in place for a very long time, and Title 42, as you mentioned, continues to stay in place.
I think this sort of push to say now we’re going to consider reinstating family detention is largely because Title 42 is going to end in May. They’re finally going to end it, and they’re saying, well, in every way, they don’t believe — they don’t want to support migrants at the border. They don’t want to support people seeking asylum. And so, they’re reinstating this policy, believing that it’s going to deter families and also politically show that they’re anti-immigration. They believe that that’s what they need to put out there. And so, in every way, the Biden administration has faltered and is going against all the promises that they made on the campaign trail.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk, Silky, about the organizing that’s going on right now? Nearly 400 human rights and immigrant rights groups have come together?
SILKY SHAH: Yes, absolutely. I mean, there has been a long effort to end family detention, going back to 2006, when the Bush administration started detaining families at the Hutto Family Detention Center. Obama brought that back — or, ended that practice at Hutto but then brought it back in 2014. There’s constantly been so many groups working to end family detention both at the local level and at the federal level, or humanitarian organizations, grassroots organizing.
We recently had a really big win at the Berks Family Detention Center, which has been in use for 20 years. And they finally ended the practice of family detention there, but they kept the detention center open for women. But just earlier this year, they stopped detaining people there altogether. And it shows the power of organizing, the power of us actually getting to this place where we’re finally seeing the end to detention at certain facilities and actually a reduction of detention in the first time in 40 years in this country.
So, for the Biden administration to now go back and say, “Well, we’re going to go ahead and detain families again,” is really a blow. But the reality is so many groups, like you said, nearly 400 groups, came out and said they don’t want this. Nobody wants this. In fact, so many people even in the administration don’t want this, within ICE. Nobody wants to do family detention, and a lot of it is just them playing politics and saying, “We’re going to do this,” because they’re worried about people seeking asylum. They don’t want to offer support to people seeking asylum. And this is their way of saying, “OK, we’re just going to treat families horribly and tell people not to come.”
AMY GOODMAN: Our other guest today is Mike Ishii, who was there in 2019 when five Japanese American elders and survivors of U.S. concentration camps protested Trump administration plans to detain migrant children at the Fort Sill Army post in Oklahoma, which was a prison camp for 700 Japanese American men in 1942. Democracy Now! was there, too, when the protest was disrupted by military police.
MICHAEL ISHII: All of our elders who are incarceration survivors have stated publicly that they are willing to be arrested in defense of the children who are going to be brought here.
MILITARY POLICE OFFICER KEYES: You’ve got one minute.
RENÉE FELTZ: Satsuki, can you please describe what’s happening now?
SATSUKI INA: They’re wanting us to — they’re wanting to remove us. We’ve been removed too many times. If that’s what it comes to —
MILITARY POLICE OFFICER KEYES: What don’t you people understand?
SATSUKI INA: — we will stay here and —
MILITARY POLICE OFFICER KEYES: What don’t you people understand?
UNIDENTIFIED: We understand the whole history of this country, and we aren’t going to let it happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Ishii, you were there with others from Tsuru for Solidarity, including Dr. Satsuki Ina. Now you’re protesting again against family detention. Talk about the background, your own family detained during World War II, and why you’re so concerned about this Biden shift.
MICHAEL ISHII: Thank you, Amy. It’s nice to be back here again.
You know, the Japanese American community is really still healing the multigenerational trauma from that forced removal, separation of families and detention. And what we recognize is that in the United States there’s an intersectional history here of always targeting communities of color and immigrant communities with this kind of state violence. So, it’s been important for Japanese Americans, who were basically silenced by that experience during World War II, to step forward and assert our voice and stand in solidarity with people who are being targeted currently, because we know the harms that come to people. That’s why we showed up at Fort Sill. That’s why, in the years since then, that we have formed a national organization. We’re fighting, along with Detention Watch and many other organizations on the ground, to stop the expansion of and the normalization of incarceration of unaccompanied migrant children. And now, unfortunately, it looks like they’re going to bring back family detention.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Ishii, I’m wondering your response to the Los Angeles Times Thursday announcing that they will no longer use the word “internment” — you know, people refer to the Japanese American “internment” camps of World War II — instead talking about “incarceration,” “imprisonment” and “detention.” What did that take for the L.A. Times to get there?
MICHAEL ISHII: Well, there has been, I would say, a campaign for over 50 years from my community to challenge the euphemisms of the United States government when it targets communities of color with racist policies. So, during World War II, they called them “internment camps.” That’s actually factually incorrect, but it was used as cover to not say that they were imprisoning people. For instance, they called immigrants “aliens,” and they called citizens “non-aliens.”
And so, we are also challenging that in this moment. You can call it a “processing center” or an “intake site,” but these are detention sites. Detention, no matter what you want to call it, under another name, is detention, and it’s wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Silky Shah, the Biden administration proposed a new policy that could block tens of thousands of people from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The rule would force migrants to first seek protection in Mexico or another country they pass through on their way here. They’d be able to ask for asylum in the U.S. only if those previous claims in another country are denied. Unaccompanied children would be exempt. Your response to this policy?
SILKY SHAH: I mean, it’s devastating to see how far this administration has gone to the right on asylum. I mean, the truth is, for many, many years, both the Republicans and the Democrats, a bipartisan strategy to push for deterrence at any cost, which is why Obama brought back family detention in 2014. And that actually opened up space for family separation to happen, him doing that. Everything that’s happened for — since the Clinton administration, especially, has been prevention through deterrence, consequences at the border, that both include turning people away, not giving them the right to asylum, also incarcerating people and prosecuting them for just seeking asylum, for coming to the border.
And I think, in so many ways, what we’re seeing with this administration is that — actually, you would hope that after the Trump administration, we’d see that this is not how we want to be as a country. We actually want to support people, protect people, care for people. Instead, this administration is going back on all of that and just saying, “No, we’re going to go — we’re going to continue to do the same thing and, in fact, keep a lot of these Trump policies.”
And I think the asylum rule that’s coming up, this, essentially, ban that’s coming up, is a response to this administration having zero vision on immigration and on, specifically, a lot of people needing safety and seeking safety right now. And instead, because Title 42, they waited to end Title 42, it took on a life of its own. And they kept it in place for so long that now they’re scrambling to find something else to put in place when Title 42 ends.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Office warned the detention of children can be devastating for a child and is not a legitimate response under international human rights law. We’re going to end here with Mike Ishii. All of the groups that are involved right now, do you have a sense — there were a number of whistleblowers, to say the least, speaking out during the Trump era. Are there were whistleblowers from within the government? And do you have a sense that you can stop this Biden shift?
MICHAEL ISHII: Well, Amy, we’re in a very troubling moment right now. This is an administration that campaigned on protecting children, calling out the harms of the Trump administration, and yet they’re actually replicating those policies.
What we’ve seen at Fort Bliss, the largest of these detention sites for unaccompanied children, is that four whistleblowers have come forward alleging sexual abuse, physical abuse, children under suicide alerts, rotten food, lack of medical attention, and certainly terrible mental health issues going on for these children. This is the state of child detention in the United States.
And the Young Center issued a report in 2022 noting that children who exhibit signs of trauma inside of detention sites are then written up, and these write-ups are used as justification to punish them. And so, a lot of them are being stepped up into secure facilities. These are juvenile detention — not juvenile detention, these are juvenile prisons. So, immigrant children taken from detention sites into juvenile prisons, this is not going in the right direction.
AMY GOODMAN: Mike Ishii, I want to thank you for being with us, Tsuru for Solidarity, his mother incarcerated at the so-called Camp Harmony holding center in Washington state, then in Camp Minidoka in Idaho during World War II, and Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network.
Coming up, as we continue to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we look at a new documentary about Julian Assange’s father, his fight to free his son, in prison for exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Back in 30 seconds.
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 4 days left to raise $36,000 in critical funds.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?