A pack of Democratic congressional leaders lined up on Capital Hill on Thursday to condemn the Obama administration for “jailing” migrant mothers and children in family detention centers across the country.
Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California and Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois led a group of nearly a dozen Democrats, who warned the Obama administration that it was fighting a losing battle after a California court concluded in a draft ruling that the president’s policies violated a decades-old agreement on migration. It’s time, they said, to stop the “violent” and “unconscionable” practice that is also an embarrassment to the country.
“It is immoral to keep mothers and children in jail while they seek asylum,” Lofgren said.
The Obama administration revived the controversial practice of family detention after last year’s wave of more than 68,000 families flooded the U.S. border fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. Many are seeking asylum.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs three family detention centers, in Berks County, Pa., and Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. Immigration officials describe the facilities as a “humane alternative for maintaining family unity” as the parents await their immigration hearings or are removed. The facilities include medical care, gyms and playrooms and access to legal assistance, officials said.
The lawmakers were joined by Maria Rosa Lopez, a 37-year-old Honduran mother who spoke of her and her 9-year-old son Yoandri’s time as detainees for six months at the Karnes County Residential Center. Rosa Lopez said Yoandri suffered psychological health effects from being detained and made suicidal comments.
“My son told me, ‘If you don’t get me out of her I will jump off the top of the room because I want to be free,’” she recalled.
Each of the facilities is more than an hour’s drive from a major city. Gutiérrez said there is a reason for that. He said the administration wants to keep the facilities out of sight and away from press scrutiny.
“They don’t want us to know,” Gutiérrez said. “They don’t want Americans to see. But it is shocking what is happening in these places that shouldn’t be supported by our tax dollars.”
The distance also makes it harder for advocacy groups and lawyers to represent the mothers and children.
Lofgren and Gutiérrez met with administration officials at the White House last week as well as with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Capitol Hill to urge them to end family detention. Gutiérrez said he reminded officials that a California judge already had concluded that family detention was wrong.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee distributed a tentative ruling on April 24, first reported by McClatchy, that determined the administration’s policy of detaining immigrant mothers and children violated parts of a 1997 settlement on child migrants. Instead of issuing a final ruling, she allowed the two sides 30 days to come up with a new agreement that addressed those violations.
“Everyone’s read the judge’s preliminary,” Gutiérrez said. “She said, ‘Fix this.’ I don’t think the judge is going to come back and say, ‘Well, you didn’t fix it so I’m going to let the kids stay there.’”
The administration promised to respond in a matter of days. It did.
On May 13, the administration announced a series of changes to make life better for the nearly 1,000 women with their children being held. Those changes include greater oversight and accountability, a community advisory committee to help improve living conditions and greater focus on speeding up the adjudication process.
Gutiérrez, as well as Lofgren, said the response was insufficient. They said the administration needs to stop detaining mothers and children and should instead pursue other detention alternatives, such as greater reporting requirements or ankle bracelets.
Other Democratic members who showed up to speak Thursday included Reps. Linda Sánchez of California, the chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Judy Chu of California; Jared Polis of Colorado, the chairman of the Immigration Task Force, Progressive Caucus; Loretta Sanchez of California, co-chairwoman of the Immigration Task Force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Beto O’Rourke of Texas.; Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, and Adam Smith of Washington.