The Obama administration late Wednesday announced a series of what it says are improvements to make life better for nearly 1,000 women and children who are being held in three detention centers – some for nearly a year – after migrating to the United States, primarily from Central America.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it will “enhance oversight and accountability” by setting up a community advisory committee, designating an official responsible for the centers, looking for ways to improve living conditions and seeking to speed up the adjudication of detainees’ cases. Most of the migrants say they are fleeing violence in Central America, and the United Nations has urged that they be given access to asylum procedures.
“We understand the unique and sensitive nature of detaining families and we are committed to maintaining the optimal level of care,” ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña said in a news release, which was also filed in federal court. “The measures ICE is announcing reaffirm that understanding and our commitment to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner.”
The announcement came after McClatchy reported that a federal court in California distributed a draft ruling concluding that the Obama administration’s use of family detention centers violates an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children.
The fact that government officials felt the need to submit the press release announcing the series of improvements into the California court record led lawyers and advocates representing detained mothers to charge the government with trying to influence the court and combat critical media reports.
“For ten months, ICE has dismissed every concern about family detention as lies and rumors,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Texas-based Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services. “Nevertheless, today it has announced a ‘series of actions’ to enhance oversight, accountability, transparency and safety. If family detention was in fact the rosy image that has been painted by ICE, there would be no need for these remedial ‘enhancements.’”
Immigration officials say they will review the situation of mothers and children who have been held for 90 days – and will follow up with reviews every 60 days thereafter – to ensure that cases are being processed through the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
ICE says it will prioritize those detainees who have been held the longest.
Additionally, ICE said it will:
– Add additional space for detainees to meet with their attorneys.
– Improve access for speakers of indigenous languages.
– Stop using deterrence of future migration as a reason for detaining migrants who have a credible fear of persecution back home.
The government can and does use ankle bracelets to ensure some migrant families show up for their court dates. But bracelets aren’t enough of a deterrent, the U.S. believes, so government officials favor detention.
The three family detention centers – in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas, and in Berks County, Pa. – have received increasing attention of late, with some mothers complaining of poor conditions and advocates exploring various avenues to both improve conditions and enable the women and children to be released on bond.
At a recent court hearing of which details were obtained by McClatchy, federal officials threatened to split up mothers and children if they’re forced to dismantle the three family detention centers, which hold nearly 1,000 migrant women and children, most of whom said they fled violence in Central America.
Department of Justice lawyers began intense talks this week with attorneys representing the interests of migrant mothers. They will try to negotiate a way to keep the facilities open after a federal court in California distributed a draft ruling concluding that the Obama administration’s use of family detention centers violates an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children.
Multiple lawsuits against family detention have been filed in California, Texas and the District of Columbia. Advocates for the mothers say it’s unlawful to detain children with their parents in jail-like facilities.
The Obama administration has dug in its heels, arguing that it needs greater flexibility when detaining parents who are considered a flight risk but also that it needs to send a strong message to Central America that it’s not OK to cross the border illegally.
Barbara Barrett of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.