The Washington Post

Squeezed at the border, Biden team considers family detention restart

- BY NICK MIROFF AND TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA Maria Sacchetti contribute­d to this report.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledg­ed Tuesday that the Biden administra­tion is considerin­g a plan to reinstate immigratio­n detention centers for migrant families, but he played down the proposal as one of several under discussion in anticipati­on of a potential spike in border crossings this spring.

“No decision has been made with respect to the detention of families,” Mayorkas told CNN’S Christiane Amanpour, saying he has encouraged Department of Homeland Security officials to place “all options on the table.”

“Great, good, bad, terrible,” he said. “Let us discuss them, and many will be left on the cuttingroo­m floor.”

Mayorkas’s statements came a day after the New York Times and others reported the administra­tion is debating whether to reverse its previous position — framed as a moral decision — that families should not be held in immigratio­n custody. Biden officials have previously touted their moves to close or repurpose three U.S. Immigratio­n and Customs Enforcemen­t facilities for families as evidence of a commitment to a more humane approach at the U.s.-mexico border.

But DHS and the White House are rethinking that decision as they prepare to lift pandemic-related border restrictio­ns May 11, according to four officials involved in the discussion­s. The pandemic measures, known as Title 42, have been used to rapidly expel more than 2 million migrants since March 2020, and DHS officials expect illegal border crossings — at record levels under Biden — will go higher once the pandemic measures end.

Immigrant advocacy groups that saw a hard-fought victory in Biden’s move to end family detention say they are incensed. But the administra­tion’s reconsider­ation of family detention signals the extent to which Biden officials appear willing to absorb blowback from liberal Democrats to reduce illegal crossings and boost the president’s ratings on border issues.

One leading option under considerat­ion would reopen the South Texas Family Residentia­l Center in Dilley, the largest of such facilities, according to two of the officials, who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberati­ons. Another administra­tion official disputed that claim and said the Dilley facility, which holds single adults for ICE, was no longer being looked at.

That complex has capacity for about 2,500 parents and children, but ICE officials say it typically tops out at about 1,500 beds because the agency avoids housing men and teenage boys with unrelated women and small children.

That number of beds would accommodat­e only a small fraction of the migrant families who reach U.S. soil. Border authoritie­s detained more than 560,000 migrants who crossed as part of a family group during fiscal 2022, data show.

Biden officials who favor the restart to family detention want to use the facilities to carry out fast-track deportatio­ns for families that lack valid protection claims, according to two officials familiar with the discussion­s. Those deportatio­ns, known as expedited removal, would be facilitate­d by a new enforcemen­t rule proposed by the administra­tion last month that would penalize asylum seekers who cross the border illegally or do not request safe refuge in other countries they pass through on their way to the U.S. border.

The restrictiv­e measure can take effect after a public comment period and will be counterbal­anced, Biden officials say, by new executive measures allowing tens of thousands more migrants to enter the country lawfully each month.

Immigrant advocacy groups and some Democratic lawmakers have panned Biden’s turn to tougher border enforcemen­t, showing some of the political risks for Biden ahead of the 2024 election.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-ariz.) said detaining families is an ineffectiv­e way to discourage mass migration, and he urged the Biden administra­tion to ramp up asylum processing.

“Family detention serves two purposes: lining the pockets of private prison companies and acting as a useless deterrent to prevent migrants from seeking their legal right to asylum,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This failed policy is callous and inhumane.”

Biden was vice president and Mayorkas the second-ranking official at DHS in 2014 when the Obama administra­tion responded to a sudden influx of Central American parents with children by sending them to what it called “family residentia­l centers” run by ICE.

The facilities offered recreation­al and educationa­l programmin­g and allowed children to be housed with their parents. But child welfare experts warned that the sites were detrimenta­l to youngsters, and the federal judge who oversees the detention programs involving minors set 20 days as the maximum amount of time children should remain at the facilities.

Because it typically takes twice as long for the government to process migrants’ protection claims, families were often released before their cases could be decided. Officials in the Trump administra­tion experiment­ed with various detention measures when family migration reached record levels in 2019, eventually devising the “Remain in Mexico” program to make asylum seekers wait outside U.S. territory while their claims were processed.

“Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediatel­y,” Biden said in a 2020 tweet while campaignin­g for office and criticizin­g his opponent’s border policies.

Once in office, his administra­tion phased out family detention in favor of electronic monitoring programs using GPS technology that allows migrant parents and children to leave government custody.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-pierre said Tuesday that DHS was “working through ways” to determine how to move forward after the lifting of Title 42, but she declined to say whether Biden had been briefed on any options to restart family detention.

“I’m not saying it’s being considered,” she told reporters at the White House news briefing. “And I’m not saying it is not. I’m saying that I’m not going to speak to rumors.”

She said Biden, who has faced congressio­nal opposition to his plan to enact a comprehens­ive immigratio­n package, intended to “use the tools that he has before him to make sure that we build an immigratio­n system that is safe, orderly and humane.”

Asked if it is possible to create such a system while detaining migrant families, Jean-pierre declined to answer directly. She was more pointed when speaking about President Donald Trump’s immigratio­n policies, comparing Biden’s approach favorably to that of his predecesso­r.

“Trump tried to deport ‘dreamers,’ ” she said. “We went to court to protect them. Trump ripped babies from their mothers’ arms. We’re reuniting those children with their families.”

 ?? Andrew Harnik/associated PRESS ?? President Biden visits a stretch of the U.s.-mexico border in El Paso on Jan. 8. A Texas site might be reopened to house migrant families.
Andrew Harnik/associated PRESS President Biden visits a stretch of the U.s.-mexico border in El Paso on Jan. 8. A Texas site might be reopened to house migrant families.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States