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Hundreds of Central American moms and kids released from detention in Texas

And even more people are expected to be released soon.

Children lay on donated beds and mats put out by the San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship. CREDIT: Alex Zielinski
Children lay on donated beds and mats put out by the San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship. CREDIT: Alex Zielinski

Hundreds of women and children seeking asylum in the United States were released from a pair of family detention centers in South Texas over the weekend, following a district judge’s ruling to prevent state officials from issuing child care licenses to the federal facilities.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency dropped off roughly 460 mothers and children in San Antonio on Saturday evening, leaving immigrant groups scrambling to find accommodations for them.

Families were taken to the San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship Church, where they slept in pews and on donated mattresses and “waited for relatives to pay for plane tickets or bus rides — or just pick them up,” reported Michael Barajas and Alex Zielinski of the San Antonio Current.

Volunteers told the SA Current that two more busloads of people were expected to arrive at the church by Tuesday.

Over the past several years, thousands of Central American mothers and children have crossed the southern border along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Escaping gang violence and crushing poverty in their home countries, many of them have sought asylum or another form of humanitarian relief to legally stay in the United States. In response, the Obama administration has expanded its use of family detention centers to hold people as they wait for court hearings to determine whether they qualify for asylum. Some of these ICE-controlled immigration facilities are owned by private prison companies.

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The immigrants who were released this week were being held in the South Texas Family Residential Center, which is operated by CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), and the Karnes County Residential Center, which is operated by the GEO group.

According to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), about 25 percent of the families who were released had not yet gone through a credible fear interview — a preliminary step for determining whether they are eligible for asylum.

For years, advocates have been working to end family detention centers. Organizations like the Grassroots Leadership have criticized these facilities for having inadequate medical and health care and poor living conditions. Most recently, a crayon ban in the visitor’s area at the Karnes facility drew sharp condemnation and a 1,800-signature strong petition from advocates, who called the ban “extremely disturbing.”

“We can only hope this is a sign that the Obama Administration is finally deciding to end this failed experiment in family detention,” Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director of RAICES, said in a prepared statement. “We call upon the Obama Administration to continue these releases and end family detention, end the detention of asylum seekers, and cut ties with private prison companies.”

Last year, a federal judge ruled that immigrant children must be held in licensed facilities that receive regular oversight by an independent child welfare agency. In response, Karnes and Dilley operators tried to get permanent child care licenses so they could keep their doors open.

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On the face of it, Karnes seems like an ideal location to detain children — there are classrooms, playgrounds, non-institutional clothing, food, and shelter. But in reality, state officials found multiple deficiencies that put children at risk of harm and injury. During hearings in May and June, previously-detained mothers at both facilities testified to being held in “prison-like conditions,” where one woman’s daughter was “spoken to and touched inappropriately by another unrelated detainee sharing their room” at Karnes.

In her final ruling, Judge Karin Crump said that allowing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to grant licenses to the facilities “runs counter to the general objectives of the Texas Human Resources Code.”

An ICE spokesperson said that the releases from the Dilley facility “were scheduled as part of normal operations and not in response to the court ruling.”

It appears that the Obama administration has been scrambling to figure out how to approach immigration policy in the aftermath of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory. Last week, advocates scored a mixed win when a U.S. Department of Homeland Security advisory committee voted to phase out immigration detention centers.

It’s as yet unclear whether Trump would heed the recommendations to curb detention or blaze ahead with his promises to detain millions of immigrants.