- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Homeland Security will begin releasing more illegal immigrant families from detention, Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Wednesday as he bowed to political pressure from activists and members of Congress who’d called the conditions inhumane for families.

Despite offering amenities for the illegal immigrants ranging from flat-screen televisions in every suite, classrooms and ball fields at their disposal and 24-hour access to snacks and sodas, Mr. Johnson said he’s concluded things are still too harsh in the three facilities designed to hold families.

He said illegal immigrant parents and children who claim they fear for their lives back home will now have the chance to post a “reasonable and realistic” bond that will earn them the right to be released into the U.S., with the hope that they eventually return for their deportation hearings.

“In substance — the detention of families will be short-term in most cases,” he said in a statement announcing the changes.

It’s a major reversal for Mr. Johnson, who just a year ago pointed to detaining families as one of the key steps he was taking to push back against the surge of illegal immigrant children and families from Central America.

It also comes as new data shows those released from detention almost never show up for their court hearings or to be deported, meaning that any of those families later deemed deportable will likely be difficult to round up.

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Mr. Johnson’s move met with praise from immigrant rights advocates, who called it a “first step” but said they still want to see the detention centers shut down altogether, and all families released out into the community.

Top congressional Republicans, meanwhile, said Mr. Obama is only making illegal immigration worse.

“By refusing to detain unlawful immigrants until their claims are proven legitimate, the Obama administration is practically guaranteeing that they will disappear into our communities and never be removed from the United States,” said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The government maintains up to 34,000 detention beds for use in deportation proceedings, but until last year, fewer than 100 were dedicated to families.

When tens of thousands of families flooded across the border, it overwhelmed the system, and Mr. Johnson scrambled to set up more beds to house the mothers and children, who are kept apart from the rest of the detained immigrant population.

Mr. Johnson had been a staunch defender of the detention system, saying it was a critical part of his plans to stop the surge of Central Americans. He said those kept in custody were more likely to be deported, and would-be immigrants in Central America who saw the deportations would think twice before making the trip themselves.

Mr. Johnson also told critics he had personally visited the facilities and defended them as humane — the same conclusion drawn by Sarah R. Saldana, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that runs the detention centers.

Even as recently as last week she pushed back against criticism of the facilities.

“This is detention. It’s not prison,” she said, bristling at accusations of jail-like facilities. “People have repeated the idea that there is barbed wire at our family residential centers and that the guards are armed. One only has to step into the facility to see that to see that those claims are false.”

But Mr. Johnson, after a visit Monday to one of the detention centers in Texas, where he talked with Central American mothers, he said he’s changed his mind about the conditions.

“I have reached the conclusion that we must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children,” he said. “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.”

His reversal comes just days after a group of congressional Democrats visited one of the detention facilities in Texas and called for the release of the families there.

Advocacy groups said they’ll watch to see how Mr. Johnson carries out his new policy — particularly checking to see whether the bonds set for the families really are affordable.

“The U.S. government should not be locking up children and families in immigration jails, period,” said Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrants’ rights project.

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