The immediate release of immigrant families from detention facilities could cause another massive wave of illegal migration like the one Texas witnessed last summer, the Obama administration argued in a court filing late Thursday.
The filing was in response to a July 24 order by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee that said thousands of undocumented women and children from Central America were being held in “deplorable” conditions and should be set free while their cases played out.
Most of the more than 2,000 immigrant women and children are detained in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. A smaller facility in Pennsylvania is also being used. The detention centers were built in response to a surge of undocumented immigrants who flooded the Rio Grande Valley last summer.
Federal attorneys believe that if word about an immediate release makes it back to Central America, smugglers “who are known to exploit changes in immigration policy” could misrepresent the facts and lure more people to breach the Texas-Mexico border.
“Therefore, the Court’s proposed remedy — to the extent that it eliminates the Government’s ability to use expedited removal or reinstated orders of removal for families under any circumstances — could cause another notable increase in the numbers of parents choosing to cross the border with their children,” attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department argued.
Gee initially ruled that detaining the families for long periods of time violated the terms of a 1997 legal settlement that requires undocumented juveniles to be detained in the “least restrictive setting appropriate to their age and special needs to ensure their protection and wellbeing,” according to an analysis by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.
The Department of Homeland Security responded to Gee's ruling by saying that “three to five” days isn’t long enough to place the families in “expedited removal or reinstatement proceedings.”
Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of the New York-based Immigrant Justice Corps, which recruits and trains attorneys to handle pro bono immigration cases, called the government's Thursday filing a bogus argument. About 35 of those attorneys are currently working rotating shifts in Texas.
The response “is not an answer to the question the judge is asking,” she said. “The judge is saying, ‘It is illegal under the terms of this consent decree, which the government knows it is bound by, for you to hold children and their mothers for so long.’”
Tiven said the government is effectively arguing that detaining the families for several weeks or longer is “reasonable.”
“Judge Gee is not saying that the facility can’t process people at all,” Tiven added. “She is saying that they can’t hold them for such an unconscionably long time and they certainly can’t hold them for what turns out, in many cases, to be an almost indefinite period of months.”
It’s unclear what will happen to the families as the case proceeds. The Obama administration has asked for an oral argument later this month. Tiven said Gee could grant that or decide to make a decision based only on the court filings. The administration can also file an appeal to the July 24 order.
According to the government’s response, the number of family units apprehended at the country's southern border has decreased by about 55 percent since the 2014 fiscal year. But 2015 is still seeing levels that are “substantially higher” than in previous years.
About 25,000 family members have been apprehended or have surrendered this year. That’s compared with the 68,455 in 2014.