Federal officials have released at least a half-dozen detained mothers and their children from a south Texas detention center as scrutiny of the Obama administration’s family detention program escalates.
On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced he will travel to the Karnes County Residential Center on Monday to review its operations and talk with locally based federal immigration and border protection officials. Seven Democratic members of Congress are also planning a trip to the facility this month to speak with detainees.
The Karnes facility has been immersed with problems the past two weeks after a teenage mother was deported days after attempting suicide.
The release in the past day of a handful of mothers on bond indicates a shift in how the administration handles cases for those who have been detained the longest. They include mothers who previously have been deported and who previously had not received bond.
Several of the mothers released had been locked up with their children since last summer, advocates said. They gained their release after paying bonds between $1,500 and $8,500.
Mohammad Abdollahi, with the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was smart to release the most outspoken mothers. Those released had taken part earlier this year in a hunger strike denouncing the conditions of their detainment.
“What other option do they have than to release the women who are going to bring this whole thing down?” Abdollahi asked.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials cited the agency’s enhanced oversight of family detention announced last month by ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña as the reason for the latest action. Those changes include regular reviews of the longer detentions to determine whether bond is appropriate. Officials emphasized that doesn’t means all cases, such as previously deported mothers, are under a policy to be released.
But lawyers and advocates said the move is political, as it comes less than two weeks before a planned visit from members of Congress who want the facilities closed.
The Obama administration runs three family detention centers in Karnes County and Dilley, Texas, and in Berks County, Pa. The facilities, which can hold more than 3,000 mothers and children, were opened in response to last year’s surge of more than 68,000 migrant families fleeing Central America.
In April, a federal judge distributed a confidential draft ruling that the practice violates parts of an 18-year-old agreement on detaining migrant children. On Thursday, McClatchy published the confidential ruling , which is under a strict gag order.
At least seven Democratic members of Congress are planning to visit the Karnes and Dilley facilities on June 22-23. They will tour the facilities and speak with detainees about conditions and access to lawyers. The members are all among the 136 House Democrats who called on Secretary Johnson to end family detention.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who is helping lead the visit, said more people need to hear about what is happening at the detention centers.
“There is a lot of momentum and pressure on Secretary Johnson and the president to end the detention of kids and moms,” he said in a statement. “These children were already traumatized by their journey and the violence they were escaping. We should not re-traumatize them by holding them for months and months.”
Whether the result of advocacy work, shame or political pressure, ICE has addressed some of the humanitarian factors that favor release, said Javier Maldonado, an attorney who represents mothers detained at the Karnes facility.
“I’m glad they’re doing this,” Maldonado said. “They should do it for all of them.”