Two weeks after a federal judge ordered that the majority of women and children being held in Texas immigration detention centers be released, attorneys said they are making moderate progress in securing their clients’ freedom.
But they also claim the government hasn’t established clear criterion spelling out who gets released and when.
“We are seeing more and more that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is releasing people but sometimes without an explanation,” Luis Mancheno, an attorney with the New York-based Immigrant Justice Corps, said last week. “What I feel is so disturbing right now is that after the judge’s decision, some people are being released and there is no real policy behind it.”
The women and children are part of last summer's surge when tens of thousands of undocumented families and unaccompanied children from Central America entered Texas illegally and surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley.
On August 21, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gave the Obama administration until late October to release women and children still being held in detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas. Attorneys said about 2,000 women and children are being held in those centers and a smaller facility in Pennsylvania.
That order came after Gee ruled in July that the immigrants were being held in “deplorable” conditions and their prolonged detention violated the provisions of a 1997 decision called the Flores v. Meese agreement. Gee’s final order said the detainees should be released unless they are a danger to themselves or the public, or are a flight risk.
Mancheno said he and his colleagues have seen immigration officials taking more than those two factors into account when making decisions.
“They are releasing people who are likely to succeed [in immigration court] but their immigration history is very different from one to another,” he said.
Government officials say they are doing what Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson mandated in a 2014 memo. That includes using the agency’s limited resources to ensure dangerous criminals are kept off the streets.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis with a priority for detention of serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety, based on the priorities laid out in Secretary Jeh Johnson’s memo,” said ICE spokesperson Adelina Pruneda. “Those who are not subject to mandatory detention and do not pose a threat to the community may be placed on some form of supervision as part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program.”
Ankle monitors are one of the most common alternatives, though critics blast them as unnecessary. Mancheno said about 80 percent of those released are required to wear the monitors, which have to be charged while being worn. They are also equipped with GPS tracking devices, which the Detention Watch Network, a watchdog coalition that monitors immigration detention issues, called “dehumanizing and unacceptable”.
Though he disagrees with the ankle monitors, Mancheno knows his clients still have plenty to be thankful for. Their chances of being able to stay in the United States skyrocket when they have legal representation, which only a minority of immigrants are able to obtain. Immigrants in detention are allowed counsel if they can afford it or can find a pro-bono lawyer. But they are not guaranteed an attorney.
Through July 2015, there were about 49,200 cases involving women with children heard in immigration courts, according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That included about 10,760 in Texas. Only about 2,600 of those in Texas had legal representation.
According to the clearinghouse data, 390 of the family units with representation were issued removal orders and more than 2,000 have cases pending. That’s compared to the 4,850 removal orders issued to the family units that did not have an attorney out of 8,146 overall.
The chances an unaccompanied minor has of being deported are even greater. According to the TRAC data, more than 80 percent of unaccompanied minors who entered the country between 2012 and 2014 and didn't have representation were deported.
Mancheno knows how high the stakes are for his clients after he sought asylum in 2008. He fled Ecuador that year after being persecuted because of his sexual orientation, he said.
“I don’t think I would have been able to do what I did had I been in deportation proceedings,” he said. “Even somebody like me, who was able to speak English at the time and who had a general idea of what asylum procedures, I wouldn’t have been able. It’s so shocking to me there are thousands of people out there who are doing it on their own.”