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Texas family detention centers expected to transform into rapid-processing hubs

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 3/4/2021 Maria Sacchetti, Nick Miroff and Silvia Foster-Frau
a group of people in a park: Immigrants at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The Biden administration is preparing to convert its immigrant family detention centers in South Texas into Ellis Island-style rapid-processing hubs. © AP Immigrants at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The Biden administration is preparing to convert its immigrant family detention centers in South Texas into Ellis Island-style rapid-processing hubs.

The Biden administration is preparing to convert its immigrant family detention centers in South Texas into Ellis Island-style rapid-processing hubs that will screen migrant parents and children with a goal of releasing them into the United States within 72 hours, according to Department of Homeland Security draft plans obtained by The Washington Post.

The plans show the Biden administration is racing to absorb a growing number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border amid shortages of bed space and personnel. Republicans and some Democrats fear that relaxing detention policies will exacerbate a surge that is already straining the Biden administration.

On Wednesday, senior ICE official Russell Hott notified staff of the rapid-processing plan in an email that said arrivals by unaccompanied minors and families this year “are expected to be the highest numbers observed in over 20 years.”

If US border officials continue to take in more than 500 family members per day, the change in use to the family detention centers "may not be sufficient to keep pace with apprehensions," Hott warned in his email, which was reviewed by The Washington Post.

Individuals who cannot be housed in one of the rapid processing centers may need to be placed in hotels, Hott wrote. An ICE contractor, MVM, will help transport the families to hotels if there is no longer capacity at the rapid processing centers, he said, adding that the company plans to use hotels in McAllen, El Paso, and Phoenix.

Transforming family detention amounts to a wholesale repudiation not only of Trump administration policies but also those of former president Barack Obama, and presents a significantly different vision of how to handle the fast-changing character of mass migration at the southern border.

For decades, single adults —particularly men— dominated the flows northward into the United States, but the number of families and minors traveling without their parents has increased substantially in recent years. Before the coronavirus pandemic, migrant families and unaccompanied minors were a majority of those taken into custody at the southwest border, a trend that more closely resembles refugee streams worldwide.

During the Obama and Trump administrations, most families were quickly released or deported. But some were held in dormitory-style facilities for weeks or months, if not longer, for immigration proceedings. Advocates for these families have long said they shouldn’t be detained at all — a sentiment that Joe Biden echoed on the campaign trail last year.

"Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately," Biden wrote on Twitter in June. "This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: Families belong together."

Six weeks into Biden’s presidency, advocates are frustrated that his administration has continued to detain families and expel them from the border under a public-health order. The number of detained family members more than doubled, from 228 adults and children before Biden took office to 476 last week, federal records show.

Although the tally is a fraction of the combined capacity of 3,300 people at three family residential centers, the uptick baffled child-welfare advocates who hoped that the detention centers would finally close. They note that Biden and Alejandro Mayorkas, now the homeland security secretary, helped to expand use of these detention centers during the Obama administration.

"There needs to be open expression of what they’re going to do with these facilities," said Bridget Cambria, a lawyer representing migrant families in Pennsylvania. "They shouldn’t detain families or children even for one second."

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement oversees three “family residential centers” for immigrants facing deportation: the 96-bed Berks Family Residential Facility in Leesport, Pa., and a pair of larger facilities outside San Antonio, a 2,400-bed center in Dilley, and a 839-bed center in Karnes County.

The Biden administration has said it is reviewing the way it uses family detention facilities, but told a federal judge last week in a lawsuit over the detentions that the policies had not changed.

But DHS officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the unpublicized plans, said the transition to rapid-release centers is already underway.

ICE emptied out the Berks center on Friday, releasing all 21 people there. ICE confirmed that the facility is empty but would not say why.

Officials are considering turning Berks into a women-only center, a DHS official said, while Dilley and Karnes would serve as quick-release intake facilities that would screen migrant families, check their backgrounds, and release them pending an immigration court hearing. Some would enroll in “alternatives to detention,” such as ankle-monitoring programs. Families would undergo coronavirus testing and nonprofit organizations would then help them secure airplane or bus tickets to their final destinations in the United States, typically with relatives or friends.

The goal is to process and release 100 families per day, the plans show. Migrants who test positive for the coronavirus would be quarantined for 10 days.

ICE would not confirm the plans and said the detention centers are under review but remain "fully operational." A spokeswoman said that most attempted border crossers are still being expelled at the southern border.

Advocates for immigrants have cheered the preliminary plans in recent days — albeit cautiously, because DHS has not made a formal announcement.

These plans are part of changes Biden has been making to the immigration system. But as he tries to rebuild the system and make it more humane, he also is eager to skirt a border crisis that could imperil his legislative agenda, including an effort to legalize 11 million longtime undocumented immigrants.

Many Republican lawmakers and some Democrats from southern border communities expressed concern that hastening the release of migrant families would encourage an even larger surge on the border at a time when they are reeling from the coronavirus and a deadly winter storm that cut power to millions and killed more than 30 in Texas.

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