Pol­icy shift could free im­mi­grant kids, fam­i­lies

Those in de­ten­tion would have to prove they are el­i­gi­ble for asy­lum or other re­lief.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Cindy Car­camo cindy. car­camo @ latimes. com Times staff writ­ers Michael Muskal in Los An­ge­les and Molly Hen­nessy- Fiske in Dil­ley con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Hun­dreds of women and chil­dren in immigration de­ten­tion will have a chance to go free on bond if they can prove they are el­i­gi­ble for asy­lum or other immigration re­lief un­der a new pol­icy the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity an­nounced Wed­nes­day.

“I have reached the con­clu­sion that we must make sub­stan­tial changes in our de­ten­tion prac­tices with re­spect to fam­i­lies with chil­dren,” Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Jeh John­son said in a writ­ten state­ment. “In short, once a fam­ily has es­tab­lished el­i­gi­bil­ity for asy­lum or other re­lief un­der our laws, long- term de­ten­tion is an in­ef­fi­cient use of our re­sources and should be dis­con­tin­ued.”

An in­crease in women and chil­dren cross­ing the South­west bor­der last year over­whelmed immigration of­fi­cials. Last f is­cal year, more than 68,000 peo­ple were ap­pre­hended in the bor­der area and de­tained while of­fi­cials de­cided whether they had a right to stay. Ini­tially, many were re­leased with or­ders to ap­pear, be­cause there weren’t ap- pro­pri­ate fa­cil­i­ties to house fam­i­lies. Then the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion opened de­ten­tion cen­ters for moth­ers and chil­dren.

John­son’s move fol­lows an out­cry over fam­ily immigration de­ten­tion and re­ports of poor con­di­tions, abuses and at­tempted sui­cides in three de­ten­tion cen­ters.

The an­nounce­ment came days af­ter House Democrats toured two Texas de­ten­tion cen­ters and penned a let­ter to John­son, call­ing for an end to fam­ily de­ten­tion.

The change did lit­tle to sat­isfy crit­ics of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s immigration poli­cies, how­ever.

Demo­cratic law­mak­ers, who sent the let­ter to John­son, called the re­vi­sion “in­ad­e­quate.” A con­tin­gent of im­mi­grant rights ac­tivists, who have long com­plained that fam­i­lies are be­ing held for long pe­ri­ods and in ques­tion­able con­di­tions, also said the changes didn’t go far enough.

“I think the bot­tom line is that we should not have immigration jails for fam­i­lies. As a coun­try, we should not be lock­ing up chil­dren,” said Ce­cil­lia D. Wang, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union Im­mi­grants’ Rights Pro­ject.

Foes of Pres­i­dent Obama’s immigration poli­cies also de­cried John­son’s move.

“To­day’s an­nounce­ment ... only en­cour­ages more chil­dren and fam­i­lies to make the dan­ger­ous jour­ney to the United States,” House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert W. Good­latte ( R- Va.) said in a state­ment. “The best way to de­ter illegal immigration is to en­force our laws in the in­te­rior of the United States and de­tain those who il­le­gally cross our borders while their cases are pend­ing. How­ever, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­fuses to take the ac­tions nec­es­sary to end the cri­sis at our south­ern bor­der and in­stead con­tin­ues to take steps in the op­po­site di­rec­tion that only en­cour­age more to come.”

The cri­sis be­gan last year, when a wave of mostly Cen­tral Amer­i­can fam­i­lies and chil­dren crossed the South­west bor­der, at­tempt­ing to f lee crush­ing poverty and es­ca­lat­ing gang vi­o­lence. The ex­o­dus was also partly fu­eled by ru­mors in their home coun­tries that un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren and sin­gle par­ents with at least one child would be al­lowed to stay.

Some peo­ple who crossed were ap­pre­hended, while oth­ers sur­ren­dered to bor­der en­force­ment of­fi­cials and re­quested asy­lum, which is within their rights un­der U. S. and in­ter­na­tional laws.

In re­sponse, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­panded de­ten­tion cen­ters for fam­i­lies, and the court sys­tem — al­ready grap­pling with a back­log of cases — be­came even more bogged down. Hun­dreds have been or­dered re­moved, some have been re­leased, and more than 1,300 moth­ers and chil­dren are still de­tained at two Texas fa­cil­i­ties — one in Dil­ley, another in Karnes City, both run by pri­vate com­pa­nies un­der con­tract with Immigration and Cus­toms En­force­ment. A third, in Berks County, Pa., is run by the county.

The num­ber of ap­pre­hended im­mi­grants is down this year, but the immigration court back­log per­sists.

Michelle Brane, di­rec­tor of the Mi­grant Rights and Jus­tice pro­gram at the Women’s Refugee Com­mis­sion, said John­son’s new pol­icy was a good first step, but im­ple­men­ta­tion is the key.

“It’s one thing to say you are go­ing to start re­leas­ing these fam­i­lies. We have to ac­tu­ally see it hap­pen­ing,” Brane said.

Sev­eral ques­tions re­main, said An­to­nio M. Gi­natta, ad­vo­cacy di­rec­tor for the U. S. Pro­gram at Hu­man Rights Watch.

“How long will the fam­i­lies be in de­ten­tion? What will be the bond rate?” Gi­natta said. “We are cau­tiously en­cour­aged. I think this is the f irst step. We’re glad to see that DHS is f in­ally com­ing to its senses.”

Gi­natta said his or­ga­ni­za­tion wanted all fam­i­lies to be re­leased from these fa­cil­i­ties be­cause de­ten­tion has been shown to cause phys­i­cal and men­tal trauma, es­pe­cially to chil­dren. He and other im­mi­grant rights ac­tivists say there are more hu­mane ways to keep track of fam­i­lies and still give them lib­erty pend­ing a de­ci­sion on whether they can stay in the U. S. In- per­son check- ins and an­kle bracelets are some al­ter­na­tives, he said.

Mo­ham­mad Ab­dol­lahi, ad­vo­cacy di­rec­tor for San An­to­nio- based Raices, an im­mi­grant le­gal ad­vo­cacy group, ac­cused the ad­min­is­tra­tion of mak­ing Wed­nes­day’s an­nounce­ment to buy time.

“What does this ac­tu­ally mean for fam­i­lies?” he said. It can take up to f ive weeks for an im­mi­grant seek­ing asy­lum to be in­ter­viewed by of­fi­cials, he said, and an ad­di­tional week or two for a de­ci­sion on whether she has a rea­son­able or cred­i­ble fear of re­turn­ing to her home coun­try.

“It’s not good enough to say we’re keep­ing trau­ma­tized peo­ple in a space where we’ve had two sui­cide at­tempts in two months,” Ab­dol­lahi said, re­fer­ring to two Cen­tral Amer­i­can women who ac­tivists say tried to take their lives while in de­ten­tion. “The only time they have changed fam­ily de­ten­tion is when law­suits force them.”

Molly Hen­nessy- Fiske Los An­ge­les Times

“WE MUST make sub­stan­tial changes in our de­ten­tion prac­tices with re­spect to fam­i­lies with chil­dren,” the Home­land Se­cu­rity sec­re­tary said in a state­ment. Above, the South Texas Fam­ily Residential Cen­ter in Dil­ley.

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