In a sharp change of policy, Homeland Security officials announced plans Wednesday to end the long-term detention of mothers with children caught crossing the border illegally by allowing most of them to be released quickly on bond.
The changes by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson expanded policies he ordered last month that were designed to shorten family detention but that had only limited effect. Many mothers said they and their young children were struggling with desperation after being held for months with no end in sight as they fought to win asylum in the United States.
Mothers and children who pass a first hurdle in the asylum process, an interview to describe their fears of returning home, will now be offered release on a bond that is “reasonable and realistic” for the family, according to the new plan. The immigration authorities will also work to reduce wait times for those initial interviews.
The administration faced a storm of criticism after it embarked on a vast expansion of family detention following the influx last summer of nearly 70,000 parents with children across the southwest border. Until recently, the immigration authorities were denying release to most family detainees.
Under the new procedures, parents and children will not be assured of staying in the United States, but they will be able to pursue their asylum claims in immigration courts on the outside, sponsored by relatives who live in this country.
About 2,600 mothers and their children, mostly migrants from Central America who say they are fleeing rampant gang violence and domestic abuse, are being held at Karnes, at another facility nearby in Dilley, Tex., and at a third in Berks County, Pa.
There have been reports of suicide attempts and of hunger strikes and other protests at the centers. Religious leaders, migrant advocates, 136 members of Congress and 33 senators, including many allies of President Obama, have called for the administration to stop detaining families.
Seven House Democrats visited the two centers in Texas this week. At the Dilley center, they were greeted by women and children chanting in Spanish, “We want freedom!”
The Dilley center, which opened in April, offers a gymnasium, a school for children, a library, and medical and dental clinics. But the surroundings have not eased the distress of prolonged confinement for mothers and young children. Lawyers from Human Rights First, an advocacy organization, who visited the Texas centers in May found that bonds were set at an average of $9,500, rates even immigration officials acknowledged were prohibitive for most migrants.
Lawyers who have been volunteering to represent migrants in the Texas centers said they had confronted frustrating obstacles. Dozens of migrants arrive daily, and without legal advice, their chances of passing the first interviews for asylum are greatly reduced.
At the Dilley center, lawyers said, they have not been allowed to take cellphones and other basic equipment into a room set aside for them, their interpreters and legal assistants have been forced to undergo lengthy background checks, and they have faced delays in meeting with women they represent.
“It’s extremely time-consuming just to get a client in front of you,” Brian Hoffman, who is leading a volunteer lawyers project for the American Immigration Lawyers Association and other groups, said by phone from Dilley on Wednesday.
Mr. Johnson said the authorities were also planning measures to ensure access to legal counsel.
Advocates said the changes were positive but did not go far enough.
“This is a step in the right direction, but these policies should have been in place from the beginning,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, the chairman of the committee on migration for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said the administration should use other ways of monitoring migrants to ensure they appear in court, and detention “should still be ended.”
Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said that he was “cautiously optimistic” about “small steps” by the administration, but that they “must be implemented quickly, and only as a first step toward ending the misguided policy of family detention.”
While the overall numbers of illegal migrants at the southwest border are down from last year, parents with children are still coming, with nearly 21,000 apprehended since October. As a result, Mr. Johnson is not ready to close down the family centers, officials said.
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