Mark it down: This was the weekend a significant portion of the internet discovered that the United States locks up immigrant families. A 2014 story about family detention circulated on Twitter, with many media figures embarrassingly indicating they thought the story was new. Fox News knocked the error, and President Donald Trump tweeted about it too.
The reality is that family detention—the practice of detaining entire family units in special centers designed just for them—is not new. For years, immigrants’ rights advocates have pushed for an end to the practice, which existed during George W. Bush’s presidency and expanded dramatically under President Obama.
“They’re both horrible administrations that have abused thousands of children,” said Bryan Johnson, a lawyer who represents children held in detention.
Johnson represented a mother detained in Texas who wrote a suicide note before cutting her wrist. He told The Daily Beast that the Obama administration and Trump administration shared the same goal in their immigration policies: trying to discourage people fleeing violence from seeking asylum in the United States.
“The purpose of separating the children from the parents is the same goal as the Obama administration, with the idea that they’re going to deter future would-be migrants from coming with their children,” he said.
The Obama administration dramatically expanded family detention space after a surge of immigrant mothers and children came to the border in 2014. It was so prevalent that private prison companies have cashed in on the practice. In a 2015 shareholder report, officials with the private prison company CoreCivic—then known as Corrections Corporation of America—boasted that a new contract in Texas to detain mothers and children would boost its yearly revenue by $49 million.
On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday morning, White House aide Stephen Miller said family detention is currently at full capacity, and that the biggest impediment to detaining more families is lack of space.
If the Trump administration expands the number of beds available in family detention centers, it will be building on Obama’s legacy.
“There’s very little difference between President Trump and President Obama with respect to the jailing of refugee children in deportation internment camps,” said Matt Kolken, a lawyer who also represents children seeking asylum in the U.S. “There’s been a systemic assault on the rights of immigrants by both President Obama and President Trump with respect to them using a detained setting as a way to dissuade people from coming to the United States.”
The biggest difference between Trump and Obama’s policies toward children, according to lawyers, is that the Trump administration is arresting and prosecuting parents who cross the border illegally with their children, which results in children being separated from their parents and placed in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. But advocates say the alternative—family detention—is also an inhumane way to treat asylum-seekers and young children.
“End family separation, the hashtag, is really odd to me because without family separation, one of the defaults would be family detention and that’s been the hashtag since 2015,” said Andrew Free, a lawyer who focuses on immigrants’ civil rights.
“Like so much else in immigration, this administration has taken weapons that Obama’s folks loaded and left on the table on the way out and then they picked these weapons up and started firing, and that’s what’s happened here,” Free continued. “The previous administration created and stood up this infrastructure and refused to demand accountability from the people that were responsible for running it, and now you have its predictable consequence in the hands of this administration.”