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Obama administration hit with lawsuit for locking up potential asylum seekers

The ACLU is taking the Obama administration to court for detaining immigrant families -- many of whom say they are fleeing conditions of extreme violence.
President Barack Obama walks toward Marine One while departing the White House, Nov. 25, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)
President Barack Obama walks toward Marine One while departing the White House, Nov. 25, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

The ACLU is taking the Obama administration to court for locking up immigrant mothers and children -- many of whom they say are fleeing conditions of extreme violence in their home countries -- and holding the families in detention centers while they await their asylum hearings.

In a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday, the civil liberties advocacy organization charged that the policy of detaining immigrant families violates not only federal immigration laws, but also the Fifth Amendment for locking up asylum-seekers for the explicit purpose of deterring others from attempting to seek refuge in the United States.

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"Locking up families and depriving them of their liberty in order to scare others from seeking refuge in the U.S. is inhumane and illegal," Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement. "The government should not be using these mothers and their children as pawns. They have already been through devastating experiences, and imprisoning them for weeks or months while they await their asylum hearings is unnecessary and traumatizing." 

The federal government has rushed to beef up resources along the southwestern border since last summer when thousands of unaccompanied minors who were caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally generating widespread media coverage and outrage. Much to the ire of human rights and refugee advocates, that has lead to one major change to the Obama administration's detention policy: locking up immigrants who could potentially qualify for asylum in the U.S..

Advocates and organizations have found that many of the children swept up along the southwestern border said they were fleeing dire conditions in Central America. Ordinarily, those children would automatically qualify to have their cases brought before an immigration judge who would determine whether the threats the young migrants faced in their home countries were credible. In the past, those children would be allowed to live with family members in the United States as they awaited their court dates. But instead of being released, more and more young migrants are being detained with their mothers in family facilities near the border.

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to Texas Monday to mark the opening of a new immigrant family detention center that is slated to hold as many as 2,400 once the facilities are fully built. 

"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 not 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 his prepared remarks.

The emphasis on expanding the federal government's capacity to hold more immigrant families marks a stark departure from just five years ago when the DHS downsized the program and shut down operations in a South Texas facility in light of allegations of human rights violations.