Democrats' Letter: Stop Use of Family Detention Centers

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A letter sent to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and signed by 136 Democratic House members, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer, calls for the DHS “to end the use of family detention” for undocumented women and children caught crossing the U.S. border. The letter, which was sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren Lucille, Roybal-Allard and Luis Gutiérrez, argues that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s changes to its family residential centers do not go far enough in preventing harm to those sequestered there.

“We believe it is undeniable that detention in a secure facility is detrimental to mothers and children and is not reflective of our values as a Nation,” reads the letter. “Children require special protections and should not be placed in jail-like settings.”

Last summer, ICE opened additional centers in response to a dramatic increase in illegal immigration in the Rio Grande Valley.

On Feb. 20, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction against the Obama administration’s use of family detention as a way to deter future immigration.  Two months later, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee issued a tentative ruling that administration policy on such detention violated the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which established standards for the treatment of children in custody of immigration authorities. Gee gave the government 30 days to negotiate with the group of immigrant families who had brought the lawsuit.

In response, on May 13 ICE introduced six measures that would establish additional oversight for the detention facilities, including the creation of a new advisory committee, new responsibilities for a senior ICE official, and ongoing review of existing policy. However, the announcement also reaffirmed ICE’s support for the policy of family detention centers. Many immigrant advocates, including Human Rights Watch, remain opposed to the program after the announcement.

Wednesday’s letter marks a split between House Democrats and the administration over immigration policy. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton also critiqued the use of family detention centers at a roundtable event in Nevada in early May.

Immigration reform has long been an especially divisive topic on both sides of the aisle. The administration is also in the midst of a legal fight with 26 states, led by Texas, over the president’s executive actions introduced in November that would give work permits and protections against deportation to millions of undocumented immigrants. On Tuesday a federal appeals court in New Orleans denied the administration’s request to allow the initiatives to move forward during the litigation.

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