Families of Central American immigrants turn themselves in to US Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico on Sep. 8, 2014 to McAllen, Texas.
Photo by John Moore/Getty

Court blocks Obama administration from detaining asylum-seekers


A federal court on Friday ordered the Obama administration to immediately halt its policy of detaining immigrant asylum seekers as a means to deter other Central American mothers and children from fleeing to the United States.

The ruling was borne out of a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in December that challenged the administration’s policy of locking up immigrant families in civil detention centers while they sought asylum through the immigration courts. Attorneys for the civil liberties organization charged that the strategy of detaining asylum-seekers in order to send a message to others who consider fleeing from Central America violated the Fifth Amendment.

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“Immigration detention is not meant to be punitive,” Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project told msnbc. “We hope is that the administration will take the decision as an opportunity to revisit its policy.” 

Federal agencies last summer, both over-extended and under-prepared, struggled to keep up with the flood of migrant children being caught by U.S. border patrol agents. In the last fiscal year, 68,541 unaccompanied minors were apprehended, up 77% from the year before. By law, unaccompanied minors hailing from countries that do not share a border with the U.S. are offered immediate protections once they enter the U.S. But years of children fleeing extreme gang violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador caused a bottleneck at the southwestern border last June, spurring a crisis that was just as much political as it was humanitarian.

The Obama administration responded by setting up a triage of processing and intake centers while implementing new policies designed to expedite the deportation process for the unaccompanied kids. Women and children were held in facilities indefinitely under a “no-bond or high-bond” policy as the administration continued to aggressively expand its detention capacity.

In unveiling a new immigrant family detention center in South Texas that would soon have the capacity to hold up to 2,400 people at a time, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last December introduced a new strategy to send a message to immigrant families hoping to brave the journey north.

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“The message should be clear: as a result of our new emphasis on the security of the southern border, it will now be more likely that you will be apprehended; it will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back; and it will now be more likely that your hard-earned money to smuggle a family member to the United States will be seized and will never reach its intended source,” Johnson said in announcing the opening of the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., found that the asylum-seeking families were being detained as a direct result of DHS’s deterrence policy, and that detention was damaging in a number of ways that was “particularly harmful to minor children.” And while the U.S. government argued that preventing a mass influx of immigration was critical to national security, the court found that  “incantation of the magic word ‘national security’ without further substantiation is simply not enough to justify significant deprivations of liberty.”

The Department of Justice declined to comment.