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Biden’s Plan to End Long-Term Migrant Detention Does Not End Family Detention

Migrant justice advocates are urging Biden to permanently halt the long-term incarceration of migrant families.

A family of Central American asylum seekers arrives to a bus station after being dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol agents on February 25, 2021, in Brownsville, Texas.

The Biden administration’s plan to rebrand family detention facilities as “reception centers” as part of sweeping changes to the United States immigration system is drawing a mixed response. Migrant justice organizations welcomed the efforts to end long-term detention but warned that without making the policy permanent, a shift in political winds could mean the eventual return of family detention.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the agency’s intention to end long-term family detentions and convert existing immigrant family detention centers in South Texas in a call to immigrant advocates in February, which was later confirmed through draft plans obtained by The Washington Post.

These draft plans indicate that the aim is to prevent families from being locked up for weeks, months or even years; a practice that was common during the previous administration. The facilities will now hold migrant families only long enough to screen and process them, with the aim of releasing them into the United States within 72 hours. This represents a radical departure from Trump-era policies that focused on deportations, detentions and family separations.

According to media reports, the “credible fear” interviews, which is the first step in the U.S. asylum process where an asylum officer will determine if there is credible fear of persecution in the applicant’s home country, would no longer be held at ICE facilities, removing an important barrier to release. Migrants would instead be released into the U.S. pending a court hearing, with some being forced to wear an ankle monitor.

In a statement, RAICES, a nonprofit agency that provides legal services to underserved migrants, warned that this change was a “non-permanent policy move” and instead called for these facilities to be shut down immediately.

“As long as the family prisons are open along the Southern border, children and their parents are incarcerated and are not free to leave. With these prisons functional we run the risk of return to deportations and prolonged detention,” reads the statement.

Andrea Meza, director of family detention services at RAICES, said in a series of tweets and statements to media outlets she was concerned that if these facilities were not shut down completely and permanently, policy changes at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could easily lead to the resumption of long-term family detention.

Calling migrant detention facilities “inhumane” and “dangerous,” Jorge-Mario Cabrera, director of communications at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), said the plan to end long-term detention represented an important step forward.

Cabrera, however, was clear that this move alone would not be enough, arguing that state agencies would need to also provide support for migrant families and organizations in order to ensure that migrants would have long-term success. Currently, the plans appear to call on nonprofits to fill this role.

“If case management is absent from these services, the likelihood that a migrant will suffer some other indignity outside of the detention center is very high,” Cabrera told Truthout.

Organizations serving migrants have been forced to mobilize more resources and volunteers to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Daniel Klein from the Interfaith Welcome Coalition told The Washington Post that Klein’s organization has at times spent $1,000 a night to provide migrants with food and transportation.

In its statement, RAICES highlighted the vast amount of funding provided to ICE and called for that spending to be re-prioritized.

“Each year they spend billions of our tax dollars incarcerating people, yet with all this spending they’ve not created a streamlined operation to release people within three days … For as long as ICE continues to exist, they need to spend less money on detention centers and more money getting people to their families safely,” read the statement by RAICES.

CHIRLA has long called for the end to migrant detention, Cabrera said families should always be placed in communities “where they belong and where they can contribute.”

This view is echoed by RAICES, which said in its statement, “We know from experience that the vast majority of families have relatives in the U.S. to which they can be released while their immigration case plays out.”

With the plans to convert family detention facilities still unpublished, it is not clear when the transition would take place. However The Post reported that the changes were already underway, with some facilities already emptied.

RAICES warned that this change should not be viewed as the end of family detention, as families would still be detained for days and ICE is still engaged in removal proceedings at the agency’s Karnes County facilities, which is one of the facilities being rebranded. RAICES also stressed the fact that the Biden administration has continued to expel migrants through the use of Trump-era Title 42 emergency declaration concerning COVID-19.

The draft plans call for 100 families per day to be released, with those testing positive for COVID-19 being quarantined for 10 days. Cabrera called on DHS to go one step further and provide vaccines to all migrants.

The changes to family detention facilities are part of the Biden administration’s efforts to undo much of the previous administration’s immigration policies. On his first day in office, President Biden announced a series of executive orders that included a reversal of some of Trump’s most hardline immigration policies. U.S. lawmakers also introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would provide a path to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

However, the Biden administration has come up against great resistance from Republicans and even some Democrats. Biden’s plan to freeze deportations for 100 days was stopped after a federal judge blocked the move in response to an injunction sought by Texas. Biden faced heavy criticism after the administration opted to reopen a facility for unaccompanied children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed the decision, saying in a tweet, “This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party.”

Some Democrats have also begun suggesting that Biden’s immigration policies would provoke a “surge” of arrivals and provoke a crisis at the border.

“We are weeks, maybe even days, away from a crisis on the southern border,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat representing a border district in Texas, said in a statement on Thursday.

On Wednesday, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 4,500 migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to figures reviewed by Reuters.

Migrant justice activists in Central America have warned that large numbers of migrants would continue to seek refuge in the United States as long as the conditions the produce the exodus — violence, poverty, climate change and political persecution — remained.

Jorge-Mario Cabrera flatly rejected the fear mongering of some politicians, instead calling for lawmakers to pass the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.

“The old lies won’t stand and we have a very good chance in Congress right now to fix many problems in the immigration system,” Cabrera told Truthout. “Why wouldn’t Republicans and Democrats alike want that type of solution? Wouldn’t the nation be much better without the politics of hate and division that these lies perpetuate?”

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