In reversal, Biden weighs detaining migrant families

Covid-era restrictions have allowed US immigration officials to quickly turn around most migrants, but the White House is preparing to put an end to those measures

Biden, en la frontera de El Paso (Texas) a principio de este año
President Joe Biden walks with US Border Patrol agents along a stretch of the US-Mexico border in El Paso Texas, on January 8, 2023.Andrew Harnik (AP)

The Biden administration is considering detaining migrant families who cross into the US illegally as it prepares to end Covid-19 restrictions at the US-Mexico border, according to US officials familiar with the plans. That would be a major reversal after officials in late 2021 stopped holding families in detention facilities.

Homeland Security officials are working through how to manage an expected increase of migrants at the border once the Covid-19 restrictions that have been in place since 2020 are lifted in May. Detention is one of several ideas under discussion and nothing has been finalized, the officials said.

If families were detained, they would be held for short periods of time, perhaps just a few days, and their cases expedited through immigration court, one official said. The officials were unauthorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on “rumors” that the policy was under consideration. “I’m not saying that it is, I’m not saying that it’s not,” she said. She refused to say whether President Joe Biden believed that detention of families was humane.

Under current policy, families who arrive at the US-Mexico border are released into the US and told to appear in immigration court at a later date. During the height of the pandemic, few families were held in custody, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are now using those facilities to hold single adults who cross the border illegally.

But the US has increasingly moved to restrict migrants as it faces record numbers of people coming to the Mexico border seeking asylum and is seeing some success at bringing down the number of migrants making a dangerous and often deadly journey.

The suggestion to again detain families was met with disdain from immigration advocates, who point to studies that show how detrimental detention can be for children and families. Many said they were surprised to hear of the possibility because they had been told families would no longer be detained.

“The Biden administration is seeking to find a balance that protects the rights of those fleeing persecution and violence and the desire to enhance the orderliness of asylum processing,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the Immigration Hub. “Detaining families has no place in this quest. We implore the administration to reject this shameful, retrograde practice.”

In 2020, Biden himself said in a tweet after reports that children were being released but not their parents: “Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately. This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: Families belong together.”

A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows some support for changing the number of immigrants and asylum-seekers allowed into the country. About four in 10 US adults say the level of immigration and asylum-seekers should be lowered, while about two in 10 say it should be higher, according to the poll. About a third want the numbers to remain the same.

Illegal border crossings plummeted after Biden announced Jan. 5 that Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans would be returned to Mexico if they crossed illegally. At the same time, the administration announced that up to 30,000 people from those four countries could come monthly if they applied online, arrived at an airport and had a financial sponsor. The Border Patrol stopped migrants 128,410 times on the Mexican border in January, down 42% from December, which was the highest month on record. February numbers have not been publicly released, but one of the officials told the AP migrants were stopped about 130,000 times.

Last month, the administration said it would generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the US southern border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through, mirroring an attempt by the Trump administration that never took effect because it was blocked in court.

But most of these efforts do not include families, which are treated differently because of the children traveling. But parents who fear detention may also start sending their children alone, and the number of unaccompanied migrants is also rising.

“I’m alarmed by news reports that the administration is considering reinstating family detention policies,” said Bennie Thompson, D-Miss, the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee. “Not only are these policies cruel and harmful to children, but they don’t prevent families from traveling to the United States.”

The administration has the capacity to house roughly 3,000 people in two family detention centers in Texas.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations detained families in those facilities until their immigration cases played out, though a court order prevents the government from holding children beyond 20 days. A third detention center in Pennsylvania was shut down a few months ago.

Jean-Pierre pushed back against criticism that Biden was reinstating some of the policies of former President Donald Trump, who, among the major changes he made to the immigration system, severely curbed asylum and forcibly separated children from their parents at the border in a policy denounced worldwide as inhumane.

″A lot of people have compared what the president is doing, is either extending what Trump did or being very Trump-like,” Jean-Pierre said. “That is not what is happening here.”

Administration officials are ending the national emergency on May 11 that was brought on by the pandemic. Because the border restrictions known as Title 42 are tied to the national emergency, the administration is also planning to end them on May 11. The US Supreme Court is weighing a Republican-led effort to leave them in place, but it has removed oral arguments on the case from its calendar.

The majority of migrants who come seeking asylum do not actually win asylum, according to data from the US government. Only about 30% are deemed eligible under US law, which narrowly defines who qualifies. Many people coming are seeking a better life and fleeing poverty and devastation in their home countries, but it doesn’t often mean they get to stay in the US.

The two Texas detention centers are in Karnes City and in Dilley. Families would likely be held again in Dilley, which was used to detain families during the Obama and Trump administrations. The New York Times first reported that officials were considering detaining families again.

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