Earlier this week, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials announced a new immigration detention policy that will enable hundreds of women and children who have crossed the southern border illegally to be released from family detention centers if they can prove they are eligible for asylum, prompting a storm of criticism that the end to long-term detention will only exacerbate the border crisis.
House Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R.-Va.) issued a statement condemning the new policy, calling the ongoing surge of Central American families and children arriving at our border “a crisis of President Obama’s own making” that will “only encourage more children and families to make the dangerous journey to the United States.”
Homeland Security Today reported in March that a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit found that the "rapid increase in the number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) apprehended at the US-Mexican border" from Central America was triggered primarily by crime, violence and economic distress, contrasts substantively with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) El Paso Intelligence Center’s (EPIC) July 7, 2014 intelligence assessment, Misperceptions of US Policy Key Driver in Central American Migrant Surge. The EPIC assessment stated the surge of UACs and families into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley that began in 2012 had much more to do with human traffickers promoting false information that anyone who could get to the US would be allowed to stay.
Homeland Security Today first reported in 2011 that the Rio Grande Valley was fast becoming the entry point for “Other Than Mexicans” (OTMS) and “Special Interest Aliens” — persons from countries that harbor or support terrorists or where there is a significant terrorist presence.
“The best way to deter illegal immigration is to enforce our laws in the interior of the United States and detain those who illegally cross our borders while their cases are pending,” Goodlatte said. “However, the Obama administration refuses to take the actions necessary to end the crisis at our southern border and instead continues to take steps in the opposite direction that only encourage more to come.”
The change in strategy emerged just months after Homeland Security Today reported nearly 91,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from Central America, crossed the southern border last year alone, fleeing drug cartels and violence at home. This influx overwhelmed border security in the US. Many of the families that crossed the border illegally said they escaped to the US after hearing they might be allowed to stay if they claimed “credible fear,” and that families with children were routinely allowed to enter.
In response, the Obama administration expanded detention centers for families. The three main facilities are in Dilley, Texas, Karnes City, Texas and Berks County, Pennsylvania. Approximately 2,600 mothers and children are currently detained at these facilities.
Immigrants remain in the camps while they fight their case in court. With so many cases, the system has become overwhelmed. As a result, many families remain for extended periods of time, leading to suicide attempts and protests by immigrants trapped in the camps.
InMay, the policy changed so that officials could no longer use deterrence as a reason to prevent families from leaving the camps. As a result, families started getting released more quickly. Immigration officials reported that the average stay decreased to 22 days.
Recently, DHS announced even more far-reaching changes with the revised immigration policy ending long-term family detention.
“I have reached the conclusion that we must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement on Wednesday. “In short, once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”
The first part of the asylum process is an interview where immigrants describe their fears of returning home. If they pass this interview, the new policy states that they will be released on bond. Officials are also trying to shorten the wait time to grant immigrants these interviews.
In addition, the administration is also working on a plan to get immigrants better access to legal counsel, as lawyers who have visited the camps in the past have complained about delays in meeting their clients and lengthy background checks for interpreters and assistants.
The new policy is being critiqued over concerns that illegal immigrants who are no longer detained will simply vanish into the US. Earlier this year, Fox News obtained data from the Department of Justice Executive Office of Immigration Review showing that 84 percent of adults with children that were released from detention do not show up at court.
“The Obama administration’s failure to detain recent border crossers and those responsible for the surge is outrageous, especially in light of new information showing that the vast majority of unlawful immigrants and their children who are released into the US and have removal orders never show up for their court date,” he said in the statement.
Homeland Security Today previously reported that many asylum seekers abuse the system. Last year, an internal DHS report obtained by the House Judiciary Committee revealed that at least 70 percent of asylum cases contain proven or possible fraud. In response, the House Judiciary Committee introduced in March the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, which undertook to strengthen the standards for asylum that immigrants would have to meet.
In March, by a vote of 21-12, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to reform asylum laws by closing loopholes that encourage illegal immigration.
In April, Iowa Republican David Young “had a memorable exchange with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña during a House Committee on Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on theagency’s budget. Saldaña interrupted Young to say agency policy trumps the law, which I think feeds into the larger narrative of management flaws, dysfunction and distrust at DHS; it is a disturbing trend,” a Capital Hill source told Homeland Security Today on background.
The policies Saldana and Young were debating were implemented by presidential executive orders on November 20, 2014. The President’s long expected series of executive actions overrode laws to allow ICE to prioritize deporting felons not families, and requiring an estimated four million – but likely many, many more — currently illegal immigrants in the country to pass a criminal background check before being given work permits, Social Security numbers and required to pay taxes in order to temporarily stay in the US without fear of deportation.
Meanwhile, DHS’s Inspector General (IG) stated in an unusually harsh audit report that DHS does not track its uses of prosecutorial discretion in immigration enforcement, which may compromise national security and public safety.
Also in April, according to information ICE provided to the House Committee on the Judiciary, the agency released 30,558 criminal aliens with a total of 79,059 convictions in Fiscal Year 2014.
Although the number of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border is down this year, parents with children continue to illegally enter the US. Consequently, DHS officials have stated that they are not ready to close down the centers entirely. However, many Democrats and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have called for the end of detention camps.
“The US government should not be locking up children and families in immigration jails, period,” Cecillia Wang, director of the ALCU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “For an entire year, the government has violated the basic rights of mothers and children to apply for asylum, by locking them up without cause and at great expense, by prejudging their cases without fairly applying the law to individual circumstances, and by putting up barriers to legal counsel, when the stakes are life or death.”
Wang added, “It has taken a year of lawsuits and sustained public pressure from human rights groups and Congress to get the Department of Homeland Security to act on these problems, and the ACLU will continue to hold DHS accountable."