The government maintains that it should continue to detain migrant mothers and children when they cross the southern U.S. border, the Department of Justice is insisting through a response to a federal court order calling for their release.
Last month, a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration had violated a 1997 court settlement calling for children and their accompanying parents to either be released or placed in the least restrictive setting possible. Judge Dolly Gee noted in a 25-page ruling that children were being held in “widespread and deplorable conditions in the holding cells of Border Patrol stations” and called for the release of families within 90 days. At the time, she gave the Obama administration until August 3 to respond to her ruling with reasons for why the policies shouldn’t be implemented within 90 days.
In a response filed Thursday, Department of Justice lawyers argued that the Obama administration shouldn’t have to release migrant mothers and children directly into the interior of the United States because they’ve already adopted changes to reduce the detention period to less than a month. They also believe that keeping family detention centers open could potentially deter “future surges of families crossing the Southwest border.”
Lawyers insist that they’ve already improved policies — they anticipate that families entering in the future, who can assert a claim of fear will be processed, screened for the claim, and released within an average of 20 days.
The DOJ lawyers also denied that the Department of Homeland Security has a blanket “no release” policy, a tactic that advocates have charged is part of an aggressive deterrence strategy meant to detain current detainees without bond as a means to dissuade future migrants from crossing the border. Lawyers stated that the “bottom line is that the Court’s Order is addressing a factual context that no longer exists (even assuming it did) and that does not apply to anyone currently housed at a family facility.” Further, the DOJ lawyers insisted that since February 2015, “Defendants have not detained a single person at a family facility where general deterrence of unlawful migration was used as a factor in his or her custody determination.”
In response to an increase of Central American women and children coming through the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency adopted a policy to detain female-headed households with children in detention facilities. At least four such facilities were used to detain the families, while migrants waited to find out whether they would be allowed to stay in the country on asylum or some form of humanitarian relief.
Advocates, who have been calling for the release of migrant mothers and children for months now, are incensed. “The Administration’s experiment over the past two years has proven that family detention is an unworkable solution to address our country’s broken immigration system,” the immigrant advocacy group We Belong Together’s co-chair, Miriam Yeung, said in a press statement.
“It cannot be said strongly enough that detaining mothers and children is wrong. I have talked with mothers who cannot stop crying, who speak of how their children have changed while being held in detention,” Sister of Mercy Kathleen Erickson, RSM, who served two months as the interim chaplain at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, said in a statement. “Family detention exacerbates their trauma by holding them in a place unsuitable for children, with no understanding of when they will be released.”
And even Martin O’Malley, a Democratic presidential candidate, jumped into the fray, tweeting, “The US is a welcoming, compassionate country yet we insist on jailing vulnerable women and children. Why didn’t @DHSgov #EndFamilyDetention?”
Women have been lodging complaints about the conditions in detention facilities for months. And hundreds of House Democrats really began the push to end family detention around May. Most recently, Democrats invited two female detainees and a former detention center worker to talk about their experiences at a Judiciary Democrat’s Forum. The former detention worker recalled seeing young children who had regressed developmentally and thinking, “this really is a prison.”
In June, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a series of policy changes to limit the length of time migrant women and children are kept in detention. “We must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children,” Johnson said at the time. “In substance — the detention of families will be short-term in most cases.” Reforms would include allowing migrants to pay bond to secure their release and ensuring their access to legal representation and other services.
Weeks after Johnson’s announcement, the administration began releasing hundreds of migrant mothers and children who are not public safety threats. Advocates and lawyers state that many heads of households, generally the migrant mothers, have been coerced into wearing GPS tracking devices attached to their ankles.