The U.S. government is asking a federal court to reconsider allowing it to continue detaining immigrant women and children caught along the southwestern border after the government was ordered to immediately release the families seeking refuge in the U.S.
A district court judge in California issued a scathing order last month condemning the Obama administration for violating a decades-old agreement that outlined standards for keeping children in federal custody. Judge Dolly Gee found it both "astonishing" and "shocking" that officials would spend millions of dollars to build new facilities from the ground up without first ensuring the detention centers comply with those standards.
Lawyers from the Department of Justice formally responded late Thursday, arguing that the policies under contention were already outdated by the time the court reached its decision. If the judge's order was upheld, and the families were released, there would be grave repercussions, they argued.
“The proposed remedies could heighten the risk of another surge in illegal migration across our Southwest border by Central American families, including by incentivizing adults to bring children with them on their dangerous journey as a means to avoid detention and gain access to the interior of the United States," the Justice Department attorneys wrote.
The federal government had rushed to build two new immigrant detention centers in south Texas that were designed to accommodate children, equipped with playgrounds and classrooms, in the wake of a humanitarian crisis at the border. More than 60,000 unaccompanied minor children were captured after fleeing from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in the last fiscal year, over-taxing virtually every level of the government's response and fueling a heated political debate over immigration reform.
Administration officials said at the time that once the children completed the legal process, the vast majority of them would ultimately be sent back home. But just the opposite was happening. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services found that nearly 90% of women and children held in immigrant detention centers expressed a credible fear of returning to their home countries -- and so they could continue the process of seeking asylum.
Advocacy groups condemned the government's response on Friday, arguing that family detention is a flawed policy that was hastily implemented. The number of families caught entering the U.S. has dropped in the last year, down more than 50%. With the flow of migration down, the groups say they want to see the practice of family detention abandoned entirely.
"In speaking of 'dis-incentivizing' future migration of families, the government ignores the fact that it is perfectly legal to seek asylum," said Olga Byrne of Human Rights First. "Rather than spending millions of taxpayer dollars to violate the rights of innocent children and families, the U.S. should be expanding the use of humane, community-based alternatives to detention programs, which are proven effective in securing appearances in court while also providing support to refugees."
The detention policy was already under fire from yet another federal court that ordered earlier this year that the U.S. may not detain families with solid claims for asylum. U.S. officials had recently begun implementing new policies designed to dramatically shorten the time immigrant families were detained while their asylum cases are considered.
There are 178 House Democrats who have signed a letter calling on the administration to comply with Judge Gee's order and release the roughly 1,700 women and children currently being detained.
“It’s disappointing that the Administration continues to push to jail women and children seeking asylum," Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Luis Gutiérrez and Lucille Roybal-Allard said in a statement Friday.
“The writing is on the wall – family detention is unacceptable, un-American, and will end."