National

Talks over detention of immigrant families abandoned

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

Secret talks over the fate of the Obama administration’s family detention program have broken down, meaning a federal judge will rule on when and how migrant mothers and children can be locked up during asylum and other court proceedings.

Department of Justice officials and lawyers for the mothers have been locked in high level talks for nearly two months, trying to negotiate a new agreement after U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California found in a draft ruling that locking up mothers and children in secure facilities violated a 1997 agreement on detaining migrant children.

Negotiations were extended three times before being abandoned. The exact reason for the breakdown is unclear, but the two sides have struggled to agree on conditions under which mothers and children can be held.

At this stage the parties are unable to reach an agreement that would resolve the currently-pending motions. The parties agree that at this stage, further discussion would not be fruitful.

Peter Schey, the mothers’ lawyer and Benjamin Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general

The immigration lawyers have sought to severely restrict when mothers and children can be detained, but federal officials have argued that they need more flexibility to respond to unexpected migration surges like last year’s wave of migrants from Central America.

“At this stage the parties are unable to reach an agreement that would resolve the currently pending motions,” the two sides stated in a joint motion. “The parties agree that at this stage, further discussion would not be fruitful.”

The spotlight now turns to Judge Gee who, based on her draft ruling, is expected to rule favorably for the immigration lawyers. In her April 24 draft ruling, Gee dismissed federal officials’ “rosy account of the conditions” at the federal centers and said children and mothers should not, for example, be held in a concrete-block facility built to house adult prisoners.

“It is astonishing that [federal officials] have enacted a policy requiring such expensive infrastructure without more evidence to support that it would be compliant with the agreement that has been in effect for nearly 20 years or effective at achieving what defendants hoped it would accomplish,” she wrote in the draft ruling.

But that was in April. The administration has since taken several steps to curtail the program as its faced intense media and political scrutiny. In her draft ruling, Gee also stated that federal officials can use the residential centers as “temporary facilities” depending on a family’s situation.

Last week, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials began 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.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said he’d come to the conclusion that “long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”

Roughly 2,000 parents and children currently reside in three family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas and Berks County, Pa.

McClatchy has reported on several allegations of sexual abuse and mistreatment at the facilities, including the case of 34-year-old mother and her 12-year-old daughter who were deported then brought back to the United States from Guatemala after a federal judge ruled the deportation was improper. In another case, a teen mother who’d attempted suicide at the Karnes facility told McClatchy about how she was put into isolation and then hidden in a hotel before being abruptly deported.

Federal officials have emphasized that the facilities would remain open, but that detainees would be there for shorter periods. Congressional critics, however, say children should never be locked up in jail-like facilities and called for the facilities to be closed entirely, something the Obama administration has said it will not do.

It’s now up to the court to decide.

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