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Democrats Press Homeland Security on Massive Immigrant Detention Center

Johnson faces pressure from top Democrats concerned about plans to build a 2,400-bed detention center for illegal immigrants in Texas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 5:04 p.m. | A group of 10 Democratic Senators, including the party's leaders, raised concerns with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson over plans for a massive new detention facility for immigrants here illegally.  

“This decision threatens to make permanent a practice of presumptive detention for families and marks a reversal of this administration’s family detention policy," the letter said.  

“We fear that the result will be the ongoing detention of asylum-seeking women and children who have shown a credible fear of being returned to their home country and pose no flight risk or danger to the community,” the letter continued. “We are particularly concerned with the negative consequences of long-term detention on the physical and mental well-being of young children.” The letter was signed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. — all members of leadership.  

The other signatories include Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., who helped spearhead the letter, Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii.  

The new 2,400-bed detention center appears to represent a change in administration detention policy objectives, the letter said.  

Five years ago the administration stopped detaining families at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, which is the subject of recent litigation stemming from allegations of sexual abuse against female detainees by officers. The administration also had set aside plans for three new family detention facilities.  

“At the time, John Morton, then Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stressed the importance of reforming the detention system so that detention is ‘done thoughtfully and humanely’ and observed that the system’s purpose was to remove immigration violators from the country, not imprison them,” the letter said. “Recent plans to expand the family detention system represent a marked departure from these objectives.”  

The administration relaxed its effort to reform its detention policy to deal with the flood of unaccompanied migrant children that were crossing the border this summer. But that was thought to be temporary, and since then, “we have heard significant concerns regarding the conditions of confinement and obstacles to due process for detainees,” the senators said.  

“We are troubled by your apparent decision to make permanent and greatly expand the policy of family detention against the backdrop of these problems,” the letter said.  

Earlier this year, the White House requested $3.7 billion to deal with the flood of children crossing the border, but Congress never acted on the request.  

The Democrats’ letter comes as others have been critical of the White House for its detention policy and the new facility.  

“We're extremely disappointed in the administration's decision to dramatically expand the warehousing of vulnerable mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America,” Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, said in a release last month. “History shows us that imprisoning families limits access to due process, harms the physical and mental health of parents and children, and undermines the family structure by stripping parents of their authority. Rather than incarcerating thousands of mothers and children, DHS should be investing in effective, humane, and far less costly alternatives to detention.”  

The letter also raised concerns about an expedited review process designed to speed things up, but which the letter argued could spur the need for more beds and raises questions about due process.  

“The rushed nature of expedited review has led to indications that the due process rights of these women and children are being denied and that those with valid claims for asylum may be removed to countries where they could be at risk of persecution,” the letter said. “These problems are exacerbated by the obstacles to meaningful access to counsel for families being held in often-isolated detention centers.”  

The letter also comes as President Barack Obama plans to take unilateral action after the midterm elections on immigration. He blamed the child migrant crisis in part for the failure to pass an immigration bill in the House of Representatives.  

A DHS spokesperson said that Johnson "will respond directly to the senators."  

"As provided for by law, individuals who have illegally entered the country between ports of entry are placed in expedited removal proceedings and detained," the spokesperson said. "ICE’s residential centers for adults with children help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States."  

"ICE’s residential centers for adults with children are an effective option to maintain family unity as these individuals await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries," the spokesperson said. "ICE ensures its residential centers for adults with children operate in an open environment that includes play rooms, social workers, medical care, and classrooms with state-certified teachers and bilingual teachers. ICE exercises custody decisions on a case-by-case basis."  

   

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