DHS chief defends child detention

DHS chief defends child detention
© Haiyun Jiang

President Obama's homeland security chief is defending the administration's detention of immigrant families following a recent court ruling that ordered the quick release of children being held.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the centers are a "critical" tool for screening illegal immigrant families to determine whether they pose a flight risk, whether they present a health threat and whether they have legitimate claims to remain in the country.

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"A large component of who's entering the country now are parents who bring their kids, and we have to have a good sense for who these people are," Johnson said during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "It's an opportunity, in a expedited way, to make informed judgments — to the extent we can, with the resources we have — about whether the person has a good claim to credible fear. We can't do that in a border processing center.

"The practice has reformed considerably since two years ago, when we first opened these things up," he added. "But I think that we need to continue the practice so that we're not just engaging in catch and release."

The administration is still struggling to manage the influx of immigrants who began surging at the border in summer 2014. Thousands of those migrants were families and unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, among the most corrupt and dangerous countries in the world. 

To manage the crisis, the administration opened family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, but the privately run facilities have been dogged by charges of poor living conditions and inhumane treatment.

Last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2015 district court ruling that found the administration was violating a 1997 settlement — known as the Flores agreement — by keeping kids in the centers for extended periods of time. 

The administration argued that the Flores accord applied only to those children who crossed the border unaccompanied, not those with parents. Both courts disagreed, and immigrant rights advocates — who have long pressed Obama to shutter the facilities — have only amplified those calls in recent weeks.

They might not want to hold their breath.

While Johnson said Wednesday that the administration is "looking at whether to change the practice in any way in light of the 9th Circuit ruling," he also strongly suggested there are no such changes forthcoming. 

"We're complying with Judge [Dolly] Gee's original order," he said, referring to the California-based district judge who wrote the 2015 decision.

"What Judge Gee said in her ruling last year, which we are abiding by, is that the department has added flexibility consistent with the terms of the [Flores] settlement agreement in times of influx," Johnson said. "And we've been, by the standard of 1997, at an influx for some time now. And so what we've been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we're meeting that standard."

Johnson also defended the administration's deportation policies, which came under fire in January after a wave of arrests against Central American families who'd been denied asylum claims. 

Some Democrats and immigrant rights advocates have called for a moratorium on the deportations, citing what they consider a lack of legal protections for those navigating the immigration court. Johnson rejected that idea, warning that tough enforcement is necessary to discourage a new migrant wave.

"We don't have open borders, and if we ceased removals we'd have a humanitarian crisis," he said. "There would be a surge for the exits if we ceased removals."

Johnson warned that the crisis will continue as long as Central America remains in turmoil. The ultimate solution, he argued, is to help stabilize those nations so people won't leave. 

"As long as the push-factors exist in Central America, we're going to have this problem on the Southwest border," he said.  

"No level of border security, no wall, doubling the size of the border patrol, all these things will not stop the illegal migration from countries as long as a 7-year-old is desperate enough to flee on her own and travel the entire length of Mexico because of the poverty and the violence in her country."