The Biden administration is moving forward with plans to reduce the long-term detention of migrant families, according to documents filed Friday night in federal court, though advocates fear the policy change will not be permanent.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) oversees three detention centers designed to hold migrant parents and children in deportation proceedings: two Texas facilities operated by for-profit prison companies and a smaller one run by officials at the Berks County, Pennsylvania. Together, the facilities have beds for more than 3,300 parents and children, but the Biden administration’s new plan would stop using them as long-term family detention centers, at least temporarily.
In documents filed in United States district court in Los Angeles, ICE said it planned to convert the family detention center in Berks County into an adults-only facility. ICE also announced that the Texas detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City would be converted to short-term processing facilities designed to hold migrant families for less than three days.
Legal service providers representing migrant parents and children detained at these facilities said all of their clients were released in recent days, but the groups have yet to receive any guidance on why that happened.
On Friday, ICE said only 13 families remained in detention earlier this week, noting that all were scheduled to be released on Sunday, provided they tested negative for the coronavirus.
“ICE would like to point out that it is reviewing its current family detention posture in the (family detention centers) to allow for a broader reuse of physical facilities to better meet operational needs,” the agency said in its court file.
ICE did not respond to requests for comment on Friday’s court filings. The plan to convert Texas family detention centers into expedited processing facilities was first reported by the San Antonio Express-News.
Andrea Meza, an immigration attorney with the Center for Education and Legal Services for Refugees and Immigrants, the leading provider of legal services for families detained at the Karnes City facility, expressed concern that the Biden administration’s plans may not work out. durable.
“The changes in the prisons of the Karnes and Dilley families are, at best, reversible operational changes that reduce the damage of long-term detention and, at worst, a temporary measure to calm concern. for this controversial immigration policy that will be undone with the fight against immigrants. political pressure, “Meza told CBS News, referring to family detention.
Meza also criticized the US government for continuing to use a public health authority invoked by the Trump administration last spring to swiftly expel most migrant adults and families to Mexico or their countries of origin without providing them the opportunity to seek humanitarian refuge.
While it protected unaccompanied minors from speedy removals, the Biden administration has repeatedly said it will uphold the policy, known as Title 42, of continuing to expel most border crossers until it can expand the government’s ability to do so. process asylum seekers. Some families with young children have been released in South Texas, where local officials are testing them for the coronavirus.
In January, US authorities along the southern border detained more than 7,400 parents and children in custody, a 60% increase from December. More than 4,700 of them were expelled under the Trump-era public health order, according to government data.
Advocates have long called for an end to family immigration detention, which child welfare experts have concluded is detrimental to minors and their psychological well-being. A 2016 report commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security called for the practice to be discontinued.
The Obama administration dramatically expanded the detention of parents and children in 2014, when there was a sharp increase in the number of Central American families entering US border custody. The two current family detention centers in Texas began housing families that year.
In response to a lawsuit filed by attorneys for detained migrant youth, Federal District Judge Dolly Gee ruled in 2015 that children detained with their parents were also entitled to the legal safeguards of the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires that the government works to achieve liberation. of minors in their custody.
Gee has also ruled that, in general, minors should not be held for more than 20 days in secure facilities that are not licensed by the states to house children. None of the three ICE family detention centers currently have licenses from state authorities that certify that the facilities can care for children.
The Trump administration sought to detain migrant families for the duration of their asylum cases, proposing a rule in 2019 that would have overturned the Flores agreement and allowed the government to detain parents and children indefinitely. Gee blocked the entry into force of that regulation.
President Biden’s campaign promised to use alternative arrangements that would not require holding migrants in detention, including expanding case management programs created to ensure that asylum seekers attend court appointments. Mr biden also called for children and parents to be released together from ICE detention last summer.
Bridget Cambria, executive director of Aldea, the People’s Justice Center, which has helped families at the Berks County Detention Center, said the Biden administration shouldn’t be in the business of detaining parents and children, not even for short periods.
“You cannot continue to use the facilities that were used to punish families, because there is always the fear of going back,” Cambria told CBS News. “The facilities, all three, are unlicensed and secure detention facilities, so their use for any length of time must be questioned.”