Earlier this year, officials in Duval County submitted a proposal to partner with a private company and turn an old nursing home into a family detention center. It would house immigrants from Central America that have crossed the southern Texas border illegally, like centers in Dilley and Karnes City. But that proposal may now be off the table. The head of the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Jeh Johnson says the department is rethinking family detention altogether.
Children and families who are detained are first held at border patrol stations until they can be either released or transferred to one of these long-term facilities. At these facilities, immigrants who may be undocumented are held until they can get an interview to see whether they qualify for asylum status and be released. But Gerstein says where initially people were waiting around 60 days for an initial interview, now they are waiting about 10. Eighty percent of families and children are passing the interview to determine whether they qualify for asylum status.
“It looks like the U.S. government is working through this situation more quickly than it used to,” Gerstein says. “There’s also some efforts by the immigration services to look at how they house these families. There are new requests for proposals about how the families can be housed and even a warning from one of the companies that runs one of these facilities that they might not make as much money off of it in the coming year.”
Secretary Johnson said in a breakfast discussion organized by the Christian Science Monitor that he’s considering changes. This is due to a Ninth Circuit court ruling last month which rejected a key part of the Obama administration’s interpretation of Flores v. Reno – a two-decade-old settlement requiring the quick release of children traveling across the border alone.
“What some of the immigration advocates say, as a result of these comments, is they wondered what the whole future is of the family detention effort,” Gerstein says. “If so many families are just spending 10 days or so in these facilities, are the facilities even needed at all? Could there just be a simpler way of dealing with this situation?”
Johnson also commented that a so-called catch-and-release policy would be a mistake. Although he didn’t state why exactly, Gerstein says the implication is that it would simply be too much of a magnet for families in Central America to make the journey.
But the rest of the administration may have different views.
“There are people that have probably a more liberal view on these matters than he does and we’ve seen other sort of confessions from the administration … or efforts to ameliorate the situation,” he says.
One of the efforts was setting up a transition center in Costa Rica for some of the families seeking asylum from their home countries.
“There are definitely efforts underway to try to move away from wholesale detention of these families,” Gerstein says. “Perhaps in the next few weeks or months, we’ll see some announcement from Homeland Security about what direction they plan to go with this.”
Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.