The Obama administration on Wednesday said it’s abandoning its controversial practice of detaining immigrant mothers and children who’ve established their fear of persecution if returned to their home countries.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he’d concluded that locking up mothers and children, which can cost $342 per family a day, was not an effective use of his agency’s resources. But he said the controversial family detention centers, which currently hold more than 2,500 parents and children, will remain open.
“I have reached the conclusion that we must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children,” he said. “In short, once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”
The announcement comes in the wake of intense scrutiny of the administration’s policy of detaining mothers and children while their asylum cases make their way through the court system.
It also came less than 24 hours after another woman cut herself at one of the facilities. The 38-year-old mother has been locked up in a Texas facility with her 5-year-old daughter since May. She told officials that she had been granted a bond of $8,500, but that she couldn’t leave because she didn’t have the money to pay it. Members of Congress described it as an attempted suicide.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said there was no suicide attempt at the facility.
The administration ramped up its use of family detention facilities following last year’s surge of tens of thousands of migrant families fleeing Central America. It currently operates three family detention centers in Berks County, Pa., and Karnes City and Dilly, Texas. Some detainees have been held for more than a year.
The policy of detaining mothers and children has been under fire for months. McClatchy reported on allegations of sexual abuse and mistreatment at the Berks County facility. Last week, a federal judge ordered U.S. officials to find and return a 34-year-old mother and her 12-year-old daughter who’d been deported to Guatemala. A deported teen mom who attempted suicide at the Karnes facility told McClatchy about how she was taken from her young son, stripped naked in front of screaming staffers and put into isolation after cutting her wrist. U.S. officials then hid her at a hotel before hastily deporting her to Honduras.
Johnson said ICE director Sarah Saldaña has come up with a plan to release on bond families who’ve shown they have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries. The bonds will be set based on the amounts that the family can pay but would be high enough to ensure they’ll report for their court hearings.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. , called Johnson’s announcement a “strong step” in the right direction, but he said that the best solution is to shut the facilities down.
He was among a delegation of eight House Democrats who visited the two Texas facilities this week. In Dilley, they were greeted by hundreds of mothers using pillow cases and bed sheets as protest signs. One sign read “Congress please give us our freedom.” Video taken by members of Congress shows mothers and children chanting, “libertad” – “freedom” in English.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., compared the facilities to the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said most Americans wouldn’t believe the conditions under which the mothers and children are being held.
“We went to the Karnes facility first. It’s a jail,” Lofgren said. “You can’t fix that. The majority of the inmates are children. Little kids.”
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., spoke to the mother at the Karnes City facility who, less than 48 hours later, cut herself. The mother talked about her daughter having an infection but that staff wouldn’t treat it. They told her to drink water, Roybal-Allard said.
“This is happening here in this country,” she said.
In May, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced they would revisit the cases of mothers and children detained the longest. The cases would be reviewed after they’d been held 90 days, with followup reviews every 60 days thereafter to ensure that cases are being processed through the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
The administration this month released several mothers from the Karnes facility, citing that policy change.
But Lofgren said they spoke with other mothers who had been there five and six months who had never heard of those reviews.
Advocacy groups remain skeptical. Mohammad Abdollahi, advocacy director for the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said he’d like to celebrate this kind of announcement. But he questioned officials’ sincerity. He noted ICE has announced policy changes before, but that mothers and children who should qualify for release remain locked up.
“It’s kind of like we’ll believe it when we see it,” Abdollahi said.