Dems lash out at administration over detained immigrants

Dems lash out at administration over detained immigrants

Democrats on Capitol Hill are lashing out at the Obama administration over the fate of thousands of illegal immigrant women and children being detained after crossing the southern border.

The lawmakers have long-urged the administration to shutter the detention facilities and move the detainees to less restrictive environments, and a federal judge in California recently agreed, ordering the centers to be closed.

But the Justice Department late Thursday asked the judge to reverse that decision, arguing that the centers deter illegal immigration and ensure attendance at immigration hearings. Closing the facilities, the administration warned, would undermine the government's efforts to process current detainees, discourage future migrants and secure the border.

That response isn't sitting well with the Democrats, who say the centers are not only illegal but inhumane, creating "prison-like" conditions that pose mental and physical health hazards to those being held. They're wondering why the administration would push policies to discourage migrants fleeing dangerous conditions at home.

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Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Progressive Caucus, added that he's "appalled" that the administration would view continued detentions as a means to combat illegal immigration.

"While DHS claims that they have made changes to their policies, we cannot continue to jail women and children who express credible concerns of harm in their native country," Grijalva said in a statement.

"The Obama administration is flat out wrong on this, and they're going against the laws and values of our nation."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) piled on, with a spokesperson amplifying her previous calls to close the facilities immediately.

"Leader Pelosi believes it is long past time to end family detention," said Evangeline George. "Family detention centers are inappropriate for jailing refugee children and mothers fleeing persecution and violence."

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said he was "disappointed by the Justice Department's response" and wanted the facilities closed.

"The individuals being detained with their children have committed no crime under our laws and are seeking asylum. They ought to be treated with compassion," he said in a statement.

The debate over the detention centers has swirled in Washington since the Homeland Security Department (DHS) expanded the facilities in response to the migrant surge last summer, when tens of thousands of illegal immigrants –– many of them unaccompanied children –– flooded the southern border. The torrent quickly swamped the border authorities, who scrambled for ways to detain, process and, in many cases, deport the migrants back home.

The largest of the centers both reside in Texas: The Karnes County Residential Center is a 532-capacity facility in Karnes City; the South Texas Family Residential Center, is a 2,400-capacity facility in Dilley.

A third center, in Berks County, Pa., houses almost 100 more illegal immigrants awaiting legal processing.

Last month, a U.S. District Court in California ruled that holding the families for long stretches without criminal charges violates a decades-old accord, known as the Flores Agreement, that set guidelines for the detention of illegal immigrant children.

Judge Dolly M. Gee cited the "egregious conditions of the holding cells" in finding that the administration failed to meet the "safe and sanitary" requirements established under Flores. She ordered the facilities closed unless the administration could show good cause why they should remain open.

"With respect to the overcrowded and unhygienic conditions of the holding cells, all that Defendants have done is point to their own policies requiring sufficient space, an appropriate number of toilets, and regular cleaning and sanitizing," Gee wrote. "The mere existence of those policies tells the Court nothing about whether those policies are actually implemented, and the current record shows quite clearly that they were not."

The DOJ filed its response Thursday evening, arguing that Gee's order would limit family detentions to between three and five days –– a window that would "functionally terminate the ability of DHS to place families into expedited removal or reinstatement proceedings."

"Similarly, if bed space is even further reduced as a result of the court’s order, CBP [Customs and Border Protection] believes this may result in longer detention at Border Patrol facilities and greater numbers of individuals attempting to cross the border unlawfully," the agency added. "Taken together, the proposed Order would greatly impact DHS’s operational capacity and its ability to secure the borders while facilitating lawful trade and travel."

In June, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged the need for "substantial changes" in detainee policy, adopting a series of reforms that included the release of families who show evidence of "credible or reasonable fear of persecution" at home and an effort to lower bond requirements to "reasonable and realistic" levels.

DHS cites statistics that 60 percent of all families detained at the border are released within two to four weeks, and the agency is moving to close that window even further. A DHS spokesperson said Friday that, given the reforms, the facilities should be allowed to remain open.

"The government has never interpreted the 1997 Flores settlement, which settled a case involving detention of unaccompanied minors, to also apply to the use of family residential facilities," the spokesperson said in an email.

"DHS remains concerned that if required by the Court to release all families seeking to illegally enter the United States –– including those who do not establish eligibility for relief or protection from removal –– another notable increase in the numbers of adults attempting to cross the border with children may ensue.”

The saga has flipped the partisan politics of Washington in its head, with President Obama siding with some of his sharpest Republican critics while liberal Democrats are attacking their close ally in the White House.

Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteTop Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview It’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute DOJ opinion will help protect kids from dangers of online gambling MORE (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Johnson last week urging the administration to mount a "vigorous" defense against the court order.

"The Court’s decision, if left to stand, will essentially end the detention of family units," Goodlatte wrote. "This will no doubt lead to large increases in the already excessively high numbers of aliens surging across the southwestern U.S. border and failing to appear for their removal proceedings."

Democrats, however, are left unconvinced. They want the administration to accept the court's ruling and release the detainees to less-stringent conditions.

"The overwhelming evidence shows that detention facilities are harmful to the health and well-being of children, and the facts show that these asylum seekers will show up for their immigration hearings if they are placed in alternatives to jail," Reps. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezDHS to make migrants wait in Mexico while asylum claims processed Coffman loses GOP seat in Colorado Trump changes mean only wealthy immigrants may apply, says critic MORE (D-Ill.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said Friday in a joint statement.

They said the court's ruling makes closing the detention centers inevitable.

“The writing is on the wall –– family detention is unacceptable, un-American, and will end," the lawmakers added. "Rather than fight the court’s ruling, the right and moral response is to swiftly take the necessary steps to bring our nation’s detention policy in line with the Flores settlement agreement.”