In a press conference earlier today, a group of House Democrats welcomed news that DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson will make changes, including limiting detention times and lowering bond rates, to the family detention system.
But after visiting two facilities in Texas earlier this week, including one where a detained mother recently attempted suicide, Democrats say the Secretary’s proposed changes may still not be enough.
“I understand that DHS is making some initiatives to try to soften the situation in these two detention centers and others, but quite frankly, I don’t care how much lipstick you put on it,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva.
“The fact of the matter is that it is a prison for women and children.”
Democrats who made the trip said they witnessed women and children who were highly distressed about being detained, and that following the visit they were even more resolved to have the practice of long-term family detention ended. Along with Grijalva, the members on the trip were Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland; Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois; Reps. Joaquín Castro and Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas; and Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Judy Chu and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California.
They said they were asked to hand over their cell phones and cameras for the visit to the detention centers, but refused. One member took video inside the Dilley facility — called the South Texas Family Residential Center — of women and children chanting outside in a plea for help. They said they met with women who said they had been yelled at and demeaned by guards, and that children who were ill were being told to just drink more water. Although there are amenities like playgrounds in the facilities, members said they weren’t being used.
As of Tuesday, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, there were 461 people in the Karnes facility and 2,043 people at the Dilley facility. The Berks center, which members did not visit on the trip, held 89 people.
During a tour of the Karnes facility on Monday, Rep. Gutiérrez described meeting a four-year-old who, along with his mother, has been detained for nearly a year.
“A quarter of that child’s life has been in a detention center. It’s all that he knows,” he said.
Johnson said the new policies will be aimed at limiting detention times. He said they will process women and children more quickly by conducting credible fear interviews “within a reasonable timeframe” to determine whether the women and children are eligible for asylum or other relief.
Because some women have been granted bond to leave at levels they are unable to pay, Johnson said ICE had established new criteria to set bond amounts “at a level that is reasonable and realistic, taking into account ability to pay, while also encompassing risk of flight and public safety.” A spokesman for ICE declined to provide further details about what those criteria will entail.
“I have reached the conclusion that we must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children,” Johnson said in a statement. “In short, once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”
“Our goal isn’t to fix the place,” Rep. Gutiérrez said at the press conference. “We shouldn’t have over 1,000 children detained in a prison camp.”