The Obama administration is seeking to end a policy of keeping families who illegally immigrated to the U.S. in detention centers for months on end while they await word on whether they can stay.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the policy change on Wednesday, a year after an influx of families and unaccompanied children from Central America created a crisis at the nation’s border.
In coming days, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement will issue a plan to release some families at residential centers “who are successful in stating a case of credible or reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries,” Johnson said. Those families’ release will come with a bond “or other condition of release,” he added.
Going forward, detention of families “will be short-term in most cases,” he added — just enough time for the government to obtain information about the families and to tell them about their rights.
Using those centers “will allow for prompt removal of individuals who have not stated a claim for relief under our laws," he said.
Wednesday's move came under quick fire from some corners of Congress, but will benefit the hundreds of families locked up in government facilities, the Obama administration said.
“I have reached the conclusion that we must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children,” 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 change in strategy comes months after the influx of child migrants pouring across the nation’s southern border. The tens of thousands of new children and family members strained U.S. resources before the influx died down after last summer.
That spike caused the U.S. to reinstate the family detention centers for people waiting to see whether or not they were eligible for asylum. Critics allege that those facilities are overcrowded, kept in poor conditions and allow the government to ignore people who need care.
Republicans were quick to criticize the Obama administration’s change in policy, which they said would only exaggerate the border crisis.
“By refusing to detain unlawful immigrants until their claims are proven legitimate, the Obama administration is practically guaranteeing that they will disappear into our communities and never be removed from the United States,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
“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.”