Homeland Security said it’s complying with a court order severely limiting its ability to hold illegal immigrant children and families in detention but wouldn’t release details, leaving advocates questioning whether the administration actually met its deadline.
And Homeland Security suffered another blow last week when Pennsylvania officials said they won’t renew the license for one of the key facilities U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to hold the families, further limiting the government’s ability to enforce the law just as it’s facing a new surge of illegal crossers.
“This is a tremendous victory for children, mothers and fathers, and should send a message to other states: Children do not belong in detention facilities, period,” Olga Byrne with Human Rights First, an advocacy group, said after Pennsylvania’s decision.
Taken together, the two moves will curtail the few remaining get-tough parts of President Obama’s immigration policy, which has generally been tending more lenient as he seeks to mainstream most illegal immigrants before his term in office expires.
The policy of holding illegal immigrant families was a key response to the surge of illegal immigrant children and families over the last two years, with top Homeland Security officials saying it was an important way to deter would-be crossers from Central America.
But Judge Dolly M. Gee said the way U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was operating violated a decades-old court settlement, and gave agents until Friday to comply with her ruling, which says children and their mothers must be sped through the system and released as quickly as possible, and that they cannot be held in secure jail-like facilities.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has appealed the ruling but didn’t seek a stay, which means he was supposed to be complying as of Friday.
ICE wouldn’t say how, exactly, it was living up to the agreement, but insisted it was doing so.
“In light of the October 23 deadline for compliance with the court’s Flores order, DHS has worked diligently to ensure that we are in compliance with all aspects of the court’s order,” the agency said.
Immigrant rights group, though, doubted that ICE has taken enough steps.
“The Department of Homeland Security has not taken the steps necessary to comply with the court order,” the American Immigration Lawyers Association and three other groups said in a joint statement. “Moreover, its attempts to fast-track state licensing of the Texas facilities and to coerce mothers into accepting ankle monitors without their attorneys present, as well as the continuing deplorable medical care, show that they are betting everything on the success of an appeal to the court’s order.”
Illegal immigrant adults are able to be held in detention, but the children and families from Central America over the last few years have presented a tougher problem. The surge peaked at more than 20,000 parents and children a month in early summer 2014, then dropped, but has picked up once again, hitting about 10,000 a month in August and September this year.
Homeland Security opened several facilities last year to try to handle the surge and expand capacity beyond the facility that had been operating in Pennsylvania for more than a decade.
Now that Pennsylvania holding center, which can accommodate up to 96 people, appears to be headed for a shutdown after the state’s Department of Human Services announced it would not renew the Berks Family Detention Facility’s license when the current one expires in February.
ICE said it is “reviewing” Pennsylvania’s decision, but an agency official expressed surprise at the announcement given that the state has approved the facility repeatedly dating back to 2001 and there hadn’t appeared to be any problems.
Indeed, the most recent inspection report by the state identified problems with the speed of fire drills and with the failure to have a lid for a trash can in the kitchen, as well as staff processing problems — but nothing that would suggest the kinds of abuse claimed by immigration activists.
Pennsylvania’s move could be as simple as politics and the increasing fear Democrats have of crossing the powerful Hispanic rights lobby. Voters ousted the state’s Republican governor in last year’s elections and installed Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.