By Mike Lillis - 06/28/15 09:00 AM EDT
House Democrats are amplifying their calls for the Obama administration to ease its detention policies for illegal immigrant families at the southern border.
The lawmakers, newly returned from a visit to a pair of detention facilities in Texas, said the "jail-like" conditions pose psychological and other health risks for the thousands of women and children being held for processing, many of whom arrived during last summer's migrant surge.
They're pushing Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to close the facilities and release the families into less restrictive settings while their cases proceed.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said he found the conditions "troubling" for the sheer number of young kids being held. He suggested the facilities be transformed into temporary holding stations where families remain for only "a few days" before being released while their asylum claims are heard.
"There's a difference between using beds while [the courts] are making a determination ... and treating them as a locked facility, where they are now, treated as criminals," Hoyer said. "We are urging ... that these facilities, for the purpose they're being used, be closed."
The two lawmakers were part of an eight-member group of Democrats who traveled this week to the Karnes County Residential Center, a 532-capacity facility in Karnes City, Texas, and the South Texas Family Residential Center, a 2,400-capacity facility in Dilley.
As of this week, there were 461 people in the Karnes center and 2,043 in the South Texas facility, according to a DHS spokesperson. A third center, in Berks County, Pa., currently houses an additional 89 people.
The centers have been under a spotlight since last year, when tens-of-thousands of families and unaccompanied children crossed the southern border –– most of them into Texas's Rio Grande Valley –– marking a huge increase over past years. The flood quickly swamped the border authorities who scrambled for ways to detain, process and, in many cases, deport the kids back to their homes.
The crisis sparked a decidedly partisan fight on Capitol Hill over both the cause of, and the appropriate response to, the migrant surge.
Johnson on Wednesday said DHS, after evaluating the family detention system, recognizes the need to make "substantial changes" to better the conditions for the detained women and children.
With guidance from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña, he announced a series of reforms the agency will undertake, including allowing the release of families "who are successful in stating a case of credible or reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries" and an effort to lower bond requirements to "reasonable and realistic" levels.
"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," Johnson said in a statement.
The Democrats who met with Johnson Wednesday in the Capitol, have been quick to applaud those steps. But they also want to see more done –– and quickly –– to improve a system they say lacks the medical and legal support to ensure the immigrants' well-being.
Rep. Judy Chu (Calif.), another Democrat on the visit, compared the immigrants' plight to that of the Japanese-Americans who were isolated in internment camps during the Second World War.
"We saw the negative and lasting effects of family detention after the embarrassing policy of Japanese internment during World War II, but unfortunately, our government failed to learn any lessons," Chu said. "Instead, we are recreating some of the worst aspects of those years."
The other Democrats on the visit were Reps. Joaquin Castro (Texas), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson-LeeDems sustain protest as GOP angles to start recess early House erupts as GOP tries to halt Dems' sit-in House caucus to focus on business in Latin America MORE (Texas), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.).
Gutierrez proposed a system where the immigrants be released and monitored with bracelets to ensure their compliance with the legal process. Many of the detainees have family members living in the United States, he noted, "so connect them with their family in the least restrictive environment."
"Children should not be placed in prison settings, and it's a prison setting," he said.
Gutierrez also criticized the current system for its reliance on for-profit companies running the detention centers. He's advocating for the facilities to be managed by the government, perhaps under the Health and Human Services Department.
"This shouldn't be run by jailers. This should be run by people who care about kids," he said. "Let's take the profit out of it."
The Democrats are also concerned about the timing of the new DHS reforms. Both Hoyer and Gutierrez said they broached that issue in meetings with Johnson without getting an immediate response.
"I mentioned the timeframe. The secretary took notes. I hope that he would get back to us on what that timeframe is," Hoyer said. "Obviously, ASAP is our desire.
"The impression ... I have is the secretary is seized of this issue, he is concerned about this issue," Hoyer added. "And we have made it very clear that we believe that this issue is an emergency situation that needs to be addressed."
Gutierrez echoed that faith in Johnson, noting that the Democrats' recent Texas tour was made at the request of the DHS secretary.
"It was their invitation, ... and we got to pick the people that we talked to," he said. "It isn't like he's trying to hide this."