Washington – The state of Pennsylvania is threatening to revoke the operating license of the only licensed family detention center in the country, threatening federal efforts to comply with a looming court deadline to stop extended detention of migrant children and their parents.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services on Thursday sent a letter to the federally operated Berks County Residential Center stating that the detention center is out of compliance with its original license, which was specifically for children.
“BCRC is no longer operating as the type of facility for which it was originally and continues to be licensed,” wrote Theodore Dallas, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
The Berks County facility is the only one of three family detention centers that is licensed by state authorities. A federal judge has ordered that the government no longer hold families in unlicensed facilities. Federal officials have until Friday to comply with the order, which limits the detention of families to 20 days.
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Immigration lawyers who represent the mothers being held with their children say the government is violating other parts of the judge’s order in their dash to meet the deadline.
“There is no way they’re going to be in compliance on Friday,” Brian Hoffman, an Ohioimmigration attorney who is leading the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, said of federal officials. “Given the number of people we believe are here more than 20 days, I don’t think it’s possible to do a mass release by Friday unless a giant charter bus leaves on Thursday night.”
California US District Judge Dolly Gee found that the Obama administration practice of detaining mothers and children trying to enter the United State violated an 18-year-old agreement on child migrants.
She allowed the government as much as 20 days to detain families in unlicensed facilities under certain circumstances such as last year’s surge of nearly 70,000 Central American families into the United States. But she ruled that detentions longer than that should be rare and take place only under special circumstances.
The administration currently holds about 2,075 parents and children at three family detention centers, in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and in Berks County, Pa.
The Berks facility is the only center currently with a state license.
The Pennsylvania department warned the Berks facility that it will take action and not renew the center’s license next year if it continues to operate as a family residential center.
Homeland Security officials did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
At least two dozen mothers and children, including one family that had been detained for more than a year were expected to be moved to the Berks facility this week, their lawyers said.
One of the women, Mayra Vasquez, 27, thought she and her 9-year-old daughter would be released by now. Other mothers at the Karnes City, Texas, family detention center told her most get out after 18 days.
Having fled gang violence in Guatemala, Vasquez figured she’d be OK at the center for less than three weeks. But it’s been more than a month and she is being moved to Pennsylvania.
“I’m worried,” she said in a phone interview from inside the Karnes facility. “I don’t know where they’re sending us.”
Some immigration advocates had thought that Gee’s order was the beginning of the end to family detention, but the US government has detained more mothers and children since Gee’s order in July, albeit for shorter periods.
The Obama administration expanded its use of family detention last year’s after nearly 70,000 parents and children who’d fled Central America crossed into Texas.
Federal officials have argued that they need greater flexibility to respond to future emergency migrant surges. This summer, for example, an unexpected increase in the number of unaccompanied children and migrant families in August has raised concerns about the potential of another migrant crisis. The latest surge is significant because migration numbers historically drop at the end of the summer, as temperatures rise and desert travel becomes more dangerous.
Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which is appealing Judge Gee’s ruling, did not answer specific questions about how it will comply. They referred McClatchy to a statement by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last month that said the federal agency is taking steps to comply with the judge’s order.
Johnson said the department is turning the government’s three family residential centers into short-term “processing centers,” where individuals can be interviewed instead of detained for prolonged periods.
The ankle bracelets worn by released mothers are another point of contention, with many immigration lawyers saying they were locked out of discussions with federal officials when their clients were asked to sign papers accepting the monitors.
The licensing development comes after months of lobbying of the Pennsylvania department by immigration lawyers and immigrant rights groups. Adanjesus Marín, director of the advocacy group Make the Road Pennsylvania, helped secure a meeting with Secretary Dallas on Wednesday.
“This is a huge victory because the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has confirmed what we have been saying all along that this detention center is not in compliance with the license, with the statute,” said Carol Anne Donohoe, a Pennsylvania lawyer who was at the meeting and represents several women and children at the center.
“What we’re hoping is without a license, they can’t be compliance and that everyone gets released.”