Federal immigration authorities have agreed to allow outside groups more freedom to conduct telephone medical screenings of detained illegal immigrants to help them make their asylum cases.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in an agreement approved by a federal judge Wednesday, said it will not hinder telephone-based mental exams for illegal immigrant women and children being kept at two detention facilities.
ICE also agreed to let a legal assistant working with the illegal immigrants back into one of the Texas facilities.
The case is the latest battle between Homeland Security and immigrant-rights activists who say illegal immigrants are being treated poorly while stuck in detention awaiting their deportation or asylum case proceedings.
The activists said ICE instituted a new policy in May requiring pre-approval before doctors could administer a telephone mental exam, and used that policy to kick out the legal assistant who had been orchestrating the calls.
ICE denied it was doing anything wrong, but has agreed to restore access for legal assistant, Caroline Perris, and said it would allow telephonic evaluations.
ICE did say authorities won’t let a request for a telephone evaluation interfere with a deportation, nor would it guarantee the detainees would always be available.
“However, ICE will not take actions for the purpose of interfering with a resident’s availability to participate in a telephonic medical evaluation,” the agency said in the agreement.
ICE, in a statement Thursday, said the agreement was the result of both sides working toward a resolution.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement anticipates the new procedures will streamline the request process and make it more efficient,” the agency said.
Advocacy groups said ICE instituted the stricter policy in May after Ms. Perris managed to arrange a mental health evaluation that halted the imminent deportation of a mother and child.
“For many families, such an evaluation makes a life-or-death difference: safety in the United States versus deportation to targeted violence in their home countries,” the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and the American Immigration Council said in a release.
The South Texas Family Residential Center and the Karnes County Residential Center, which is also in Texas, were created to hold the large number of illegal immigrant families that began streaming across the border in 2014.
Usually mothers and children, the migrants were coming from Central America to the U.S., hoping to gain a foothold here amid relaxed enforcement from the Obama administration.
Activists have tried to shutter the facilities, saying those being detained have often fled rough conditions in their home countries and should be treated as refugees in need of care and comfort.
Many of those being held are making asylum claims citing their lives back home, and activists say the mental exams are a critical part of proving those cases.
Immigration lawyers have sued the Homeland Security Department arguing border officers are illegally turning back asylum seekers, refusing to hear their claims.
Those who support stricter immigration enforcement argue that illegal immigrants have been coached on “magic words” they can say to earn protected status in the U.S. They say a generous American asylum system is being abused.