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House Democrats are escalating their calls for the Obama administration to shutter the family detention centers housing thousands of illegal immigrant women and children.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, 178 Democrats contend the centers — which were established last summer, largely to accommodate the flood of immigrants arriving at the southern border – are illegal and impose prison-like conditions that risk physical and mental harm to detainees.
Spearheaded by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the Democrats write that there's "strong evidence that such detention is detrimental to mothers and children and is not reflective of our Nation's values."
"The detained population is largely comprised of refugees fleeing violence and persecution, many of whom have serious medical and mental health needs that have been inadequately addressed in custody," the lawmakers wrote.
The message is not new — Democrats have been urging the administration to close the centers for most of the last year — but they have new ammunition in their fight.
A U.S. district court in California ruled last week that DHS violated a decades-old agreement for detaining illegal immigrant children and ordered the facilities to be closed. The judge has given the administration until Monday to show why they should remain open.
"In light of this recent federal court ruling, we urge you take all necessary and appropriate steps to bring the Department's practices in line with the settlement agreement and the court ruling," the Democrats wrote.
The letter was signed by the entire Democratic leadership team, including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.), Jim Clyburn (S.C.), Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden to make voting rights play in Atlanta Democrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Overnight Health Care — Insurance will soon cover COVID-19 tests MORE (Calif.) and Joe Crowley (N.Y.). The heads of the Hispanic, Black and Asian Pacific American caucuses also endorsed the message.
Johnson has been open to reforming the system, issuing a statement last month vowing "substantial changes" to better the conditions for the detained women and children.
"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.
But the DHS has stopped short of closing the facilities, and a representative on Friday said the agency will fight the California decision.
"We are disappointed with the court's decision and are reviewing it in consultation with the Department of Justice," Marsha Catron said in a brief email. "We plan to respond to the Court's order to show cause by August 3."
The detention centers have been been a topic of contention 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 in historic numbers.
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 the cause of, and the appropriate response to, the migrant surge — a debate that continues to swirl on Capitol Hill in the wake of the recent court ruling.
"As I understand this decision, it closes them down and it sends them home," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Hill on Wednesday. "And that's [something] that we need to do."
Democrats think differently, calling for the detainees to be released to family members and other less restrictive environments while their asylum claims move through the courts.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said the California ruling represents "an opportunity" for the Obama administration to improve the lives of the detainees.
"Now that the judge has ruled, we cut to the chase. The Obama administration has an opportunity here. They can either appeal the decision or they can settle and effectuate the order," said Grijalva, the head of the Progressive Caucus and a member of the Hispanic Caucus.
"It's a very critical decision for Homeland Security Sec. Johnson and the administration," he added. "Because if they appeal, they have to defend a system that fundamentally the court found to be abusive and unlawful. That's it."
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