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Tensions mount over US family detention policies

“They’re not seeking to run away and hide in our country. They’re here to be protected, they want their day in court,” said chairman Martin Castro.
The Karnes County Residential Center which houses mother and child ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees is pictured here (Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty).
The Karnes County Residential Center which houses mother and child ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees is pictured here in Karnes City, Texas on July 31, 2014.

The Obama administration is pressing forward with plans to reform its family detention policies in the face of mounting criticism calling for the federal government to stop detaining immigrant women and children altogether.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement late Friday pledging to continue implementing reforms even after a federal court ordered for the government to promptly release families currently in its custody.

"We disagree with portions of the legal reasoning in the decision and have filed a notice of appeal preserving our ability to challenge those portions,” Johnson said in the statement. “But we remain committed to reforming our family residential center policies, as we have been doing for the past several months.”

RELATED: The failed experiment of immigrant family detention

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a scathing report this week charging that the detention facilities violate immigrant family’s civil and due process rights. The bipartisan commission, made up of presidential and congressional appointees, is calling for DHS to release the women and children immediately and ultimately eliminate immigrant family detention entirely.

“They’re not seeking to run away and hide in our country. They’re here to be protected, they want their day in court,” said chairman Martin Castro, a Democrat appointed by President Obama.

The Obama administration has faced a barrage of backlash for its response to the humanitarian crisis last summer when more than 68,000 young children -- and just as many families -- were intercepted at the U.S.-Mexico border. With federal resources too overwhelmed to even process the women and children, the U.S. government soon turned to building two new detention facilities in South Texas to handle the flood of people.

District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee issued a sharply critical opinion in July charging that the new detention facilities violated a 1997 court-ordered agreement that outlined clear standards for how children should be treated in federal custody. Gee upped the ante after the administration balked a month later by asking for a new review of changes to the policy.

The federal government has until October to change its policies and ensure families are rapidly released.

Spokeswoman Marsha Catron said DHS officials have made “significant changes” and that the detention centers are currently being transitioned into short-term processing facilities.

“The Department is committed to ensuring that individuals housed in our all of our centers have the proper care and appropriate resources, that they are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner, and that their civil and due process rights are respected,” Catron said in a statement. “We have consistently improved and updated our standards and policies to reflect this commitment.”

RELATED: Dramatic decline in unaccompanied minors since 2014 border crisis

Advocacy groups have been fighting immigrant family detention since the policy’s inception, arguing that the majority of the women and children in the detention facilities qualify for humanitarian protections in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have since found that nearly 90% of detainees met the minimum threshold to seek asylum.

The federal government, meanwhile, has already offered several alternatives to detention, including strapping ankle monitors on the mothers who are released into the U.S. And this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unveiled a new pilot program that assigns caseworkers to ensure that families caught entering the U.S. illegally will show up to immigration court.

The development was met with mixed reviews from organizations hoping to see all immigrant family detention centers shuttered. While the pilot program did provide a substitute to detention, groups condemned ICE for awarding the $11 million contract to a private, for-profit prison company.

“Instead of choosing an organization with roots in the community, deep experience providing case management to vulnerable populations, and strong existing partnerships, they chose a private prison company whose actions have made it particularly untrustworthy to the immigrant community,” Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, said in a statement. “There is a real concern that families will be hesitant to work with this firm and that hesitancy will affect their chances of success in immigration court.”