Feds to shutter controversial immigrant detention center

Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, Sept. 10, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. (Photo by Eric Gay/AP)
Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, Sept. 10, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. Federal authorities want to build a similar immigration lockup facility for families in Dilley, Texas.

With just days until President Obama is expected to unveil new executive actions to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, federal officials on Tuesday announced plans to shutter a controversial detention center designed to lock up immigrant children and their families.

Immigrant families held in Artesia, New Mexico -- where officials converted a federal law enforcement training camp into a makeshift detention center in June -- will be relocated to a new facility in South Texas with the capacity to hold thousands, rather than hundreds, of new inmates.

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The flood of unaccompanied minors caught at the southwestern border of the United States overwhelmed federal resources over the summer such that the government ran out of space to process and detain children fleeing their homes in Central America.

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But even as the number of migrant kids crossing into the U.S. continues to drop, Thomas Winkowski, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said adding space to detain as many as 2,400 individuals in the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, will be necessary once seasonal migration picks up again in the spring. "These facilities help ensure timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States,” Winkowski said in a statement.

Human rights advocates and immigration groups quickly condemned the expansion as an “inhumane” solution to dealing with immigrants who say they are fleeing from extreme violence in their home countries. “The expansion of family detention is unequivocally inhumane and inappropriate for the health and well-being of this already vulnerable population,” Katharina Obser, program officer with the Women’s Refugee Commission, said in a statement.

Public and political uproar over the dramatic number of unaccompanied minors caught at the southwestern border is what contributed primarily to President Obama’s decision in September to hold off on vows to take executive action on immigration until after the midterm elections. But with the number of young border-crossers dwindling and the elections out of the way, Obama is expected to provide relief to as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants as soon as this week.

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Though it remains unclear how broad Obama's action will be, the president is expected to shield undocumented immigrants with American-born children, and those who are highly skilled in technology, from deportation, allowing them instead to work temporarily in the United States.

Complicating the situation, however, is that fact that the far-right wing of the Republican party is threatening to use opposition to the president’s executive action as political leverage. Several dozen House Republicans have signed onto tie funding for the executive action to a spending bill due by Dec. 11, laying the groundwork for another possible government shutdown. Others have gone as far as to threaten impeachment, while House Speaker John Boehner is currently preparing to sue President Obama for executive overreach.

White House officials are gearing up for a fight to defend the president's executive action, arguing that it is not only within his powers, but that it's not even unprecedented. “He does have the authority -- the legal authority -- to take actions to establish enforcement authorities,” Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Tuesday.

DREAMers, young immigrants brought to the United States as children, roamed the hallways of the Capitol building Tuesday with their undocumented parents, prepared to confront Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and stage sit-ins in the offices of politicians who oppose the president’s plan for executive action.

“That message to McConnell and the GOP leadership was, 'bring it,'” said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy for the young immigrant group United We Dream. “We are not scared, we have been down this road, we have been fighting. And when you’re serious about reforming this nation’s immigration laws, we are ready.”

“But for now,” she added, “there is only one person who can protect our parents and members of our community -- and that is President Obama.”

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Congressional Democrats, for their part, have started to corral behind the president. In a letter to Obama on Monday, top Senate Democrats said they support his decision to circumvent Congress and act on his own. And after telling reporters last week that he hoped the president would wait to make announcement until after Congress had settled its finances in December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spun around, telling Univision that he hoped for action “as quickly as possible.”

When asked during the White House briefing Tuesday if the president will decide to take action this week, Press Secretary Josh Earnest gave a coy response: “Maybe he will, who knows?”