It’s peak season for illegal immigration and the United States is bracing for another wave of migrant mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America. The Obama administration is scrambling to protect its right to hold them in family detention centers – through the summer, at least – as a means to deter more illegal migration.
Immigration officials were overwhelmed last summer when tens of thousands of mothers and children risked their lives to come to the United States. While apprehensions of migrant families are down from this time last year, experts estimate that those arriving are on pace to reach as high as 44,000, which is more than double the amount in 2013.
Most are coming from Central America, seeking asylum from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – three of the most violent countries in the world.
The surge is testing the government’s ability to carry out its primary immigration duties: preventing illegal entry while protecting those refugees who cannot safely return home, said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute.
“There is an inherent tension in those two goals,” Rosenblum said in an interview. “The things we do to ensure that unauthorized immigrants aren’t coming in makes it harder for us to successfully protect vulnerable groups – and vice versa.”
And now the government faces this dilemma as it’s being told by a federal judge that it can’t keep kids locked up – even when they’re with their mothers – and that a solution must be found by the end of this month.
The administration wants more time. It’s acknowledged that it’s fighting an uphill battle to keep its family detention centers open after the draft ruling concluded that the practice violates a 1997 settlement, Flores v. Meese, on child migrants.
Leon Fresco, a deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, told U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee in California that no one was prepared for the massive of influx of migrants last year.
“What we were trying to do, your honor, was to figure out how best to resolve the emergent situation in a way that respected both the family unit that was coming across the United States and the public safety interests, and that’s why we did what we did, your honor,” Fresco said, according to a transcript of the April 24 hearing obtained by McClatchy.
“And it’s worked,” he said, “to the extent that those numbers have gone down.”
On Wednesday night, Democratic leaders in Congress called for the end of the family detention program hours after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced a series of changes to improve conditions for detained families.
California Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, ranking member of a Homeland Security subcommittee, and Zoe Lofgren, ranking member of an immigration and border security subcommittee, along with Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, credited ICE with trying to improve conditions but said “jailing children” wasn’t the answer.
“The United States government should not be in the business of holding mothers and children in detention, no matter how nice the facilities or how many stakeholder meetings the government has,” they said in a joint statement.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., also condemned family detention Thursday, saying, “There is no humane way to detain women and children.”
Last year, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, as well as families, fled poverty and drug violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The United Nations, among other groups, called the wave a humanitarian situation.
Federal officials have an obligation under national and international law, and some say a moral obligation, to protect the vulnerable. But other migrants are coming for family and economic reasons; the government wants to stop those immigrants.
The number of immigrants arriving illegally tends to rise in the spring and summer as the weather gets warmer and employment in construction, agriculture and hospitality tends to rise. The number usually falls again in the winter months as holidays near.
Fresco, the government attorney, asked the court to allow the detention centers to stay open at least through the summer.
“We’re in the middle of the high season now, the surge season,” Fresco said, according to the April transcript. “We should at least have the opportunity to get through this season, your honor, and we can work with the plaintiffs to try to figure out how to resolve these situations. But an order like this, at this time, creates a very difficult situation.”
One of the key tools to combat the influx was new family detention centers to house the mothers and children. In less than a year, the administration went from one 100-bed family detention center in Pennsylvania to opening three others in Texas and New Mexico.
The New Mexico facility has since closed amid allegations of poor and abusive conditions. Similar allegations have been made at the Karnes City, Texas, and Berks County, Pa., detention facilities.
Still, the administration is expanding its capacity and is on track to be able to house more than 3,000 mothers and children.
The Obama administration says immigration officials are acting in a compassionate way. The family detention centers allow them to keep children with their parents. The alternative is releasing the children and holding the mothers. The women have to be detained, officials say, because most have been deported before and are now considered flight risks.
The number of families crossing the southern border jumped to 68,445 last year, a 360 percent increase from the previous year. Based on reported apprehensions this year, the Migration Policy Institute said family unit apprehensions were on pace to be between 32,000 and 44,000 this year.
That’s still more than twice as high as in 2013.
It’s unclear what role family detention played in the decrease. The facilities are part of a package of new policies the administration employed to combat the surge. Others include adding more law enforcement at the border, faster court hearings for children and families, and greater coordination with Mexico and with Central American countries.
Mexico, for example, ramped up its enforcement of those crossing its southern border. It deported 3,819 unaccompanied minors from Central America during the first five months of the fiscal year – a 56 percent increase over the same period a year earlier, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Mexican and U.S. government data.
Central America, as a region, has a long history with illegal immigration to the United States, which Rosenblum said created greater practical and political challenges.
“We’re so accustomed to looking at Central Americans arriving at the Southwest border from an enforcement perspective,” he said, “and that makes it hard for politicians and the public to react in a compassionate way.”