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Members of Congress say release of detained mothers and children not enough

Children walk to class at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
Children walk to class at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Congressional critics of the Obama administration’s policy of detaining migrant mothers and children indefinitely while their requests for asylum are pending said the administration’s decision to release some of those now being held isn’t enough; the “jail-like facilities” where they are detained must be closed permanently.

Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California and Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois on Tuesday commended Department of Homeland Security officials for releasing hundreds of detained mothers on bond or with electronic monitoring ankle bracelets, calling it an important step toward ending the controversial practice of detaining mothers and children.

But the members of Congress said they won’t let up on pressing the administration until immigration officers stop the detentions entirely.

“We remain strongly convinced that no family – regardless of status – should be housed in jail-like facilities for any length of time,” they said in a joint statement.

Federal officials have begun releasing hundreds of detained mothers and children from the nation’s family detention centers as part of a promise to end long-term detention of migrant families.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the move is part of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s plan to end controversial long-term detention of migrant mothers and children who have demonstrated they have reason to fear persecution if returned to their home countries.

We remain strongly convinced that no family – regardless of status – should be housed in jail-like facilities for any length of time.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., and Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill.

Nearly 200 detained parents and children were released over the weekend, according to ICE officials. Lawyers and advocates report at least 100 more were dropped off at bus stations in south Texas last week. Many of the mothers are being released with electronic monitoring ankle bracelets.

“Going forward, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children, absent a threat to public safety or national security, if they have received a positive finding for credible or reasonable fear,” ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said in a statement Monday night.

More than 2,150 parents and children are currently being held at family detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas.

The release comes days before a looming deadline on secret negotiations that could further upend the practice. For months, immigration lawyers have been locked in intense talks with Justice Department officials who want to keep the facilities open after a federal judge in California distributed a confidential draft ruling that found the practice violated parts of a 1997 agreement.

Going forward, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children, absent a threat to public safety or national security.

ICE spokesman Richard Rocha

The administration has been under heavy political pressure and media scrutiny. The administration currently holds more than 2,150 parents and children at three family detention centers, in Berks County, Pa., and Karnes City and Dilley, Texas.

McClatchy has reported on allegations of sexual abuse and mistreatment at the Berks County facility.

On Friday, a deported 34-year-old mother and her 12-year-old daughter were brought back to the United States from Guatemala after a federal judge said they shouldn’t have been deported. A deported teen mom who attempted suicide at the Karnes facility told McClatchy about how she was taken from her young son and put into isolation after cutting her wrist.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said the move is a victory only because of how bad the administration has made life for the detained mothers. He said children should never be “jailed for any period of time.”

“After nearly a year of advocating for children and mothers, who have fled immense violence, we are thrilled that the administration is finally accepting that their treatment of this population of people was wrong,” Ryan said. “We call for an immediate end to all family detention.”

Last month, Homeland Security Secretary 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.

While the number of detained parents is expected to drop, ICE officials emphasized that they will continue to place families at the facilities. Those who are eligible will be released on orders that they report for future court hearings. They may also be given an electronic monitoring device.

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