Immigrant-rights advocates blasted the Biden administration Tuesday after a report that Homeland Security is thinking of reviving detention of illegal alien families to stem an expected migrant surge at the border this spring.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus called the idea “deeply concerning” while the National Immigration Forum said it offended “human dignity” to have families who jumped the border sit in detention.
The New York Times, citing officials “familiar with the discussions,” reported Monday that the administration was looking to revive the practice. It said no final decision had been made, but the idea was gaining credence in anticipation of a new border surge in May when the Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy goes away.
The Obama and Trump administrations both used family detention, with Obama officials, in particular, saying it helped solve a border surge in 2015 and 2016.
But critics said the price was paid in the dignity of the migrants.
“We should not return to the failed policies of the past where families are detained in substandard conditions with long-term damage to children,” said Rep. Nanette Barragan, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Hispanic Caucus.
The demographics began to shift from single Mexican adults to Central American families and children jumping the border during the Obama years.
The children traveling without parents were nearly impossible to deter, because under U.S. law and policy they have an easy path to a foothold. Families could, however, be ousted. The trick was holding them.
The Bush administration had just one family detention facility in Pennsylvania that could hold about 100 people. The Obama administration opened two new facilities in Texas that added roughly 2,000 more beds.
The Trump administration kept those in operation, though a series of court rulings late in Obama’s second term hindered their use by slapping a 20-day limit on how long children — and therefore their parents — could be held.
Biden officials took office vowing a more lenient approach. They shut down the Pennsylvania facility and transformed the Texas facilities into short-term processing. Now, illegal immigrant families that jump the border and demand asylum or make other claims of protection are quickly released, often with some sort of monitoring or check-in requirement.
It’s not clear how the administration, if it does embrace family detention, would surmount the 20-day ruling.
Activists urged the administration not to try it.
“Detaining families is not in line with American values. Nor is it the solution Americans support to address border and immigration challenges,” said Jennie Murray, CEO of the National Immigration Forum. “Family detention failed to deter migration under the previous three presidents, and there is no reason to believe results would be different now.”
After the 20-day limit was imposed, the Trump administration tried to respond to surging families with its zero-tolerance policy, which called for prosecutors to bring misdemeanor charges against parents who jumped the border with children. In the few months that policy was operational, thousands of adults were charged, served a day or two in jail, pleaded guilty and were released for deportation.
Since no family facilities are in the federal criminal justice system, the adults’ children were taken away and treated as unaccompanied. That meant they were turned over to the Health and Human Services Department.
It turned out Homeland Security, the Justice Department and HHS had no clear way of reuniting the families once the adults were released from their short jail stays.
Hundreds of those families remain separated today, and the Biden administration has a task force working to reconnect them.
The Trump administration eventually settled on other policies to deal with the 2019 border surge, including demanding Mexico do more to block people traversing its territory and striking deals with Central American nations to take back asylum seekers who crossed their borders.
The result was a plunge in families making the attempt, dropping from more than 95,000 Border Patrol encounters in May 2019 to fewer than 12,000 by December 2019.
The Biden administration, when it took office, canceled those agreements and relaxed pressure on Mexico.
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