The Obama administration is under growing pressure to end its policy of indefinitely detaining families fleeing violence in Central America. A new report by Human Rights Watch says the prolonged detention of more than one thousand mothers and children in three federal facilities has traumatized the families, leaving some of them depressed and suicidal.
Meanwhile, negotiations to implement a federal court ruling affecting these families continue as the clock winds down toward a May 24 deadline. That's when lawyers say U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee has indicated she will rule that detaining the families violates the children's rights under an 18-year-old court settlement.
The government and migrants' lawyers are trying to reach agreement on what happens to women and children once they are processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Advocates want the centers closed. Lawyers for the families are under a gag order not to discuss the negotiations. The upcoming ruling adds pressure on the administration to find a remedy that might satisfy Judge Gee.
Officials at ICE this week announced unilateral changes that they say will improve oversight of the family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania. The changes include giving families greater access to their lawyers, and a case review process for any families detained beyond 90 days, and every 60 days thereafter, to ensure that the detention is appropriate. ICE officials also say they will no longer rationalize the detention centers as a means for deterring other families from trying to enter the United States seeking asylum.
In a statement, ICE Director Sarah Saldaña said the measures reaffirm "our commitment to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure, and humane manner."
But Clara Long, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, said ICE's changes are "thin gruel, " meant to delay real reforms.
"The government should be talking about ending family detention," said Long.
The future of the family detention centers is just one immigration issue vexing the Obama administration.
There's new evidence of a growing backlog in the nation's immigration courts due, in part, to the surge of unaccompanied minors who crossed the southern border last summer.
According to government figures collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), 70,035 unaccompanied minor cases are pending in the immigration court system. That's only a fraction of the total backlog of 445,607 cases. However, the minors' cases are known to contribute to delays in the courts because the Department of Justice has instructed immigration judges to prioritize, or "fast track" deportation hearings for the minors.
Many of the minors are forced to appear in immigration courts without the benefit of legal counsel because there are too few immigration attorneys available to represent them. The ACLU filed suit, arguing that the minors have a right to a government-paid lawyer. That case is being heard by a federal judge in Seattle.