In the face of looming deadlines by which immigrant family detention centers were mandated to show improvement, officials from the Obama administration report that many such facilities have been transformed into shorter-term processing facilities meant to hold larger number of families, but for shorter periods than before. However, growing numbers of immigrant advocacy groups are arguing that the centers themselves still resemble prisons and are characterized by insufficient legal and medical services, even though a federal judge previously ordered significant reforms.
Earlier this year, federal District Court Judge Dolly Gee lambasted government officials, holding that they had not met the terms governing the detention of immigrant children dictated in the 1997 settlement in the case of Flores v. Meese. As a result, she issued an order forbidding the administration from detaining children at facilities not properly licensed to provide for their care and also from detaining families that did not represent a risk of flight or to national security interests. In doing so, she handed down an October 23 compliance deadline.
Attorneys for the federal government mounted appeals, asserting that the detention centers had been greatly improved and pledging not to hold immigrant families for more than a 20-day period. Judge Gee had made statements suggesting that such procedures could perhaps meet the mandates of the settlement in the Flores case.
Response From the Department of Homeland Security
A spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm declared that officials have taken all possible efforts to comply with the deadline of October 23 for achieving Flores compliance. However, attorneys for the Justice Department had not, as of October 23, filed proof of compliance with the judge’s orders and revealed no intention to do so. The Homeland Security spokesperson did not make further comment regarding the matter, reminding observers that the department was not obligated to file appeal briefs in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals until February.
Those in opposition to the practice of detaining families called for a nationwide week of collective action across the United States in advance of the October 23 deadline. A march was to take place from the Justice Department building in Washington to the White House, and gatherings with previously detained individuals were to be held in New York and Texas. Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law Peter Schey, one of the forces behind the lawsuit, stated that his group would soon be making a formal assessment of whether it believed the government to have achieved substantive compliance with Gee’s orders pursuant to the Flores settlement.
Migrant Flight from Tuscon Facility Raises New Concerns
If it is determined that compliance is lacking, according to Schey, the group may seek additional intervention on the part of Judge Gee, which could include sanctions, contempt hearings or the appointment of a special monitor. Schey has already stated that he did not believe that the government had made major strides toward compliance, asserting that children continue to be held in lockdown conditions together with adults who are not relatives. This, he argues, is a clear violation of the settlement in Flores.
Influx of Famoilies
Family detention facilities were expanded last year following the influx of over 66,000 families, large numbers of which hailed from Central America. By the latter part of this year, the nation’s three primary family detention facilities are slated to grow by a total of 3,700 beds. One such center is located in Pennsylvania, and the other two are in Texas. Earlier in October, 1,658 children and adults were being housed at the Dilley, Texas detention facility, a massive increase from the 658 who were there prior to Judge Gee’s August order, as reported by CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project attorney Brian Hoffman.
Hoffman noted a rapid rise in the center’s population following the judge’s mandates, opining that there seemed to be a concrete effort to maintain a certain population at the facility.
In October, 2,100 individuals were being sheltered in the centers, as opposed to the 1,700 there in July, the time of Gee’s initial order. In September, Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security stated that family detention facilities were set to be transformed into short-term centers mean to quickly screen, interview and process immigrants. The focus was to definitively shift away from long-term detention.
ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea came to the defense of the government’s centers, stating that family residential facilities remain a key aspect of the U.S. response to an influx of undocumented persons traveling over the border. She maintained that the facilities are humane, effective and an essential tool for preserving family structures while awaiting resolution of their status. Elzea reaffirmed the government’s commitment to ensuring transparency with regard to the mental health services, medical care, social work, legal and other services provided to those at the facilities.
Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva condemned the conditions he found at a detention center in Texas, stating that they were extremely depressing and shameful to our nation. Though he had a meeting with Secretary Johnson, he was alarmed by what he viewed as glaring inconsistencies between what he personally observed and how the government publicly characterized conditions at the sites.
As a result, Grijalva ultimately called for legislation which would eliminate family detention and instead put in place community-based programs which would provide monitoring of these populations at a lower cost. He has been joined by many other Democrats in the House in advocating for full closure of the family detention centers.
Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group reports that the federal government is likely to detain approximately 45,000 immigrant children and adults in 2015, a massive increase over just 6,000 the previous year. The cost is estimated to grow to over $400 million. Immigrant rights advocates have criticized the government after finding that legal and medical services available for these individuals were insufficient, with some ailing children failing to be provided with adequate treatment and some individuals being deported without being afforded access to a lawyer.