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ICE To End Use of Family Detention

Posted by Matthew Green | Mar 31, 2021 | 0 Comments

Immigration and Customs (ICE) has announced that it is ending the use of family detention and will instead transition to short-term facilities.  This declaration was disclosed on March 5 in filings made in the Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1985 lawsuit settled in 1997 which protects the wellbeing of undocumented children held in detention. 

Going forward, the short-term facilities will release migrant families after no more than 72 hours.  This move is appears to be in line with the Biden administration's approach to immigration; in his plan for his first hundred days in office, the president promised to end prolonged detention and reinvest in a case management program (to read more about Biden's first hundred days, see this post).  Immigration advocates are concerned, however, that the policy change is not a permanent one.

Family Detention: What is it?

Going forward, the short-term facilities will release migrant families after no more than 72 hours.  This move is appears to be in line with the Biden administration's approach to immigration; in his plan for his first hundred days in office, the president promised to end prolonged detention and reinvest in a case management program (to read more about Biden's first hundred days, see this post).  Immigration advocates are concerned, however, that the policy change is not a permanent one.

Undocumented families who are detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for entering the United States are held together in detention centers.  It can be said that these detention centers—whose prison-like conditions are irrefutable—send a message.   The National Law Review  puts it simply:  their purpose is to “deter others from making a similar journey.”  This practice was expanded in 2014 during the Obama administration and underwent even further expansion during the subsequent administration. Under former president Trump, families could be detained for up to twenty days, the maximum period of detention limit fixed by the Flores Settlement Agreement.  

Originally, there were three family detention centers: Dilley and Karnes, both in Texas and operated by for-profit prison companies, and the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania. CBS News reports that, collectively, these three facilities have enough beds for 3,300 parents and children.  As of March 5, thirteen families remain in detention: seven were scheduled to be released that same day while the remaining six were to be released two days later. The families had to be tested for COVID-19 prior to release and, should they have tested positive, they would have had to spend the quarantine period within the facility.

ICE has disclosed that the two Texas facilities will be converted into short-term centers while the Pennsylvania detention center will only hold adults.  In its court filing, the agency stated that it “would like to note that it is revising its current family detention posture at the (family detention facilities) to allow for a broader repurposing of the physical facilities to better meet operational needs.” Alternatives to family detention centers include more economical and humane options such as parole-based supervision and case management programs.

Response to ICE Court Filing

As DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC News, ICE detention is “not where a family belongs.” An end to family immigration detention has long been awaited, its fight ignited by research findings in which child welfare experts have agreed that detention is harmful to the psychological state and development of minors.  The news that these facilities will be ending is no doubt welcomed by undocumented families and advocates alike—but not without reserve.  Immigration attorney Andrea Meza of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, the main legal services provider for families held at the Karnes City facility, told CBS that “the changes at the Karnes and Dilley family prisons are at best, reversible operational changes that reduce the harm of long-term detention, and at worst, a temporary move to quell concern about this controversial immigration policy that will be undone with anti-immigrant political pressure.”

This warning already seems to have rung true. On March 9, only four days after ICE disclosed the transition away from family detention centers, an anonymous official revealed that “We are not ending family detention. We are not closing the family detention centers.”  Instead, the agency will focus on moving families through its custody more quickly by releasing some more quickly and increasing the number of family detention beds.  The official continued: “It is all to serve this goal of making it very clear that the border is not open, we are not inviting people to come, they should not come at this point.” Should this refutation of the court filings prove to be true, it is not only a step backward but a promise broken by President Biden.  Family detention centers are not, and have never been, the just and humane way to treat migrant families. Until changes are fully realized and made permanent, the fight for dignified support must continue.

About the Author

Matthew Green

Managing Attorney. Green | Evans-Schroeder (formerly Law Offices of Matthew H. Green) focuses on the aggressive defense of immigrants. A native of Arizona, Mr. Green understands the difficulties that immigrants and families of immigrants face when a loved one is charged with a crime. He knows how frightening it can be for some...

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