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Biden Administration Moves To Speed Up Processing Of Migrants In Family Detention

The Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, is one of three family detention centers the federal government operates.
Drew Anthony Smith
Getty Images
The Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, is one of three family detention centers the federal government operates.

The Biden administration is aiming to process and release migrant families arriving at the border seeking asylum more quickly — within 72 hours — by converting some detention facilities, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.

The objective is to turn them into processing centers where criminal background checks and full health screenings can be completed, before migrant parents and children are released with orders to appear in court.

A possibility under discussion is eventually providing COVID-19 vaccinations as part of the broader essential services, including medical care and other vaccinations, that are typically offered to asylum applicants before they are released.

Peter Schey, the lawyer for the class of detained children at the family detention centers, said he was happy that the Biden administration appears to be moving towards releasing the families together.

"It has always been a waste of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayers' money and really inhumane to detain mothers with their children who are not a flight risk or danger to the United States," said Schey, who has been negotiating with the Biden administration and shared some details of the plans being discussed. "So we're cautiously optimistic about recent developments."

There are still some questions about how many families will actually be released, Shey says. Some parents may not be released, he says, if they have previously been deported or have a criminal record.

The move represents a dramatic shift from the enforcement-focused Trump administration, but also the Obama administration, which resurrected and expanded the controversial practice of detaining immigrant families in response to a 2014 surge of mostly Central American families and children fleeing violence and poverty.

The U.S. government operates three family detention centers in Berks County, Pa., and Karnes City and Dilley, Texas.

While the exact timing is uncertain, the Department of Homeland Security is expected to soon convert the two Texas facilities into processing centers.

A spokesperson at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of DHS, said in a statement that in "order to humanely address the current situation" at the border, "ICE continues to evaluate the manner in which it utilizes its existing family residential centers, which remain fully operational, to safely, effectively, and efficiently process and screen families."

The Washington Post was the first to report on the conversion, noting that the Berks detention center would be converted into a women's only facility.

The administration is under tremendous pressure from advocates to reverse many of Trump policies that made life exceptionally difficult for the undocumented community.

The Biden administration has already taken several steps in that direction, including providing protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, reuniting separated families and ending policies that required applicants for asylum to stay in Mexico while they awaited court hearings.

Converting the two facilities into processing centers would presumably limit the amount of time they would stay in U.S. government custody. By reducing the length of time in the centers to 72 hours, the administration would also be complying with the Flores Settlement Agreement, which limits the amount of time any child can remain in detention.

But the Biden administration is also facing a rapidly growing influx of migrants at the border that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described as a "stressful challenge."

In January, more than 78,000 people were encountered at the border, twice as many as there were in January 2020. The number of unaccompanied children alone arriving at the border increased 16% from December to January.

And the numbers generally go up as the weather improves in the Spring.

Last month, the administration reopened a Trump-era facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas to house 700 unaccompanied teens ages 13-17 who arrived at the border.

Mayorkas urged patience as the Biden administration worked to rebuild policies and personnel to process those seeking asylum.

"We are progressing every single day," he told reporters at the White House. "I don't have a particular timeline. But all I can do is communicate, both to the American public and to the individuals seeking protection, that we are working around the clock, seven days a week, to make that timeframe as short as possible, but they need to wait."

But some plans like converting the family detention centers have also raised some concerns that the Biden administration may inadvertently be encouraging more migration.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former senior adviser on immigration in both the Bush and Obama administrations said that processing migrants more quickly without long detention is no doubt better, but she said it is also adding more migrants into an immigration court system that already has multiple years of backlog.

"Policies in the United States definitely encourage timing of migration," said Brown, who is now the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "I mean, there are lots of people who want to migrate. And we did see and have seen that the smuggling organizations who charge them to get them to the border can and do market it."

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.