The end of the inhumane detention of asylum-seeking families could be a step closer to becoming reality. NBC News reports that the Biden administration said that the migrant family jail in Pennsylvania will no longer detain parents and children, while the two migrant family jails in Texas will not detain families past 72 hours. There had been reports on both of these changes within the past several days. The administration officially announced it in court documents on Friday.
“BIG news!” tweeted Amnesty International USA. “The latest filing in Flores shows the three family detention centers will soon be empty of all families in long-term detention.” But, as they noted following initial reports of the changes, advocates say families will continue to remain at risk until these jails are shut down for good. “[N]ow’s the time to close family detention centers permanently,” Amnesty International USA continued. “DON’T repurpose them. Close them.”
While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says that Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania had released all parents and children who had remained jailed there, just because it’s empty doesn’t mean it’s now out of service. “Officials are considering turning Berks into a women-only center, a DHS official said,” The Washington Post reported. “[W]e do not welcome further incarceration of human beings in ICE custody in Berks in any form,” Bridget Cambria, executive director of Aldea-The People’s Justice Center and attorney for detained families, told NBC News.
NBC News reports that while 13 families were still jailed in Texas on the day of the court filing, they were subsequently released throughout the weekend. Under the changes, ICE will now reportedly detain families long enough to conduct COVID-19 testing and schedule immigration court dates before transferring them to organizations and advocates who will assist them with shelter, bus tickets, and necessities like diapers.
But, as previously noted, advocates say they worry that 72-hour maximum is too fragile of a policy and that children and their parents will always remain in danger of harmful detention as long as Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center remain operational. Some families have been jailed at these facilities for as long as two years.
“The changes at the Karnes and Dilley family prisons are, at best, reversible operational changes that reduce the harm of long-term detention, and at worst, a temporary move to quell concern about this controversial immigration policy,” RAICES Director of Family Detention Services Andrea Meza told The New York Times. “Medical and mental health experts unilaterally agree that there is no safe way to detain a child.” St. Mary’s University law professor Erica Schommer told the Times that the changes are “a sign the administration hears the message that people don’t want families detained. However, they’re still in detention centers, and it’s my understanding people will not be free to go.”
A lawsuit against the privately operated South Texas Family Residential Center by Rapid Defense Network, ALDEA, and RAICES last year said care for sick families at the jail has been “inadequate,” with “detainees being denied evaluation for undiagnosed medical symptoms and treatment for known pre-existing conditions.” This is the same jail where a toddler named Mariee Juárez had been jailed before her death in 2018. “It can’t be that hard in this great country to make sure that the little children you lock up don’t die from abuse and neglect,” her mom told legislators in 2019.
“The removal of parents and children from Berks is the result of years of advocacy, organizing and litigation,” Cambria continued to NBC News, “all of which demonstrated that the detention of families is immoral and inhumane, that jailing children for any period of time is harmful and, of course, that our community absolutely rejects the idea of a babyjail in our backyard.” She said “the fight of family detention is not over until [the Department of Homeland Security] cancels its contracts with existing family detention centers in Texas, and closes Dilley and Karnes.”