Federal officials plan to end the long-term detention of hundreds of migrant families who are being held mainly at two large facilities in Texas after illegally entering the country, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Wednesday.
However, the change in policy did little to end criticism of the facilities from immigration advocates and some lawmakers or stop ongoing efforts seeking to permanently close them.
Johnson said he has approved a plan that would offer appropriate and reasonable bond amounts for families at the centers who can present a credible case that they fear persecution in their home countries.
"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."
It was not known how quickly the new plan would be put in place. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification.
After tens of thousands of migrant families, most from Central America, crossed the Rio Grande into Texas last summer, the government poured millions of dollars into two large detention centers meant to hold women and children. The centers are in Karnes City and Dilley, both located south of San Antonio. A third facility is located in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
At the end of last month, there were 1,835 individuals being held at the three facilities, according to immigration officials.
Johnson said the detention of families "will be short-term in most cases" but still allow enough time for officials to confirm addresses and sponsor information and educate families about their responsibilities, including attending future immigration court hearings.
But Johnson advocated for the continued use of the centers, saying the facilities "will allow for prompt removal of individuals who have not stated a claim for relief under our laws."
Immigration attorneys and advocates said they were disappointed the federal government still believes the detention of immigrant families is necessary and expressed doubt the announced changes would result in the release of many families.
"I'm extremely disappointed the secretary just doesn't seem to get that family detention is wrong and is not necessary," said Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration attorney who has represented families held at the centers in Karnes City and Dilley.
Johnson's announcement comes after a delegation of eight congressional Democrats visited the two detention facilities in Texas earlier this week.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, one of the members of Congress who visited the Karnes City facility, said the detention centers need to be closed.
"I continue to be deeply concerned that children in these facilities lack basic health and educational resources ... Detaining children puts them at risk of medical and developmental problems in the short term and later in life," Hoyer said in a statement.
Some 130 House Democrats and 33 senators have called on the government to halt family detention, while a federal judge in California has tentatively ruled that the policy violates parts of an 18-year-old court settlement that says immigrant children cannot be held in secure facilities.
In a statement this week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the centers are "an effective and humane alternative for maintaining family unity as families go through immigration proceedings or await return to their home countries."
Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, said he doubted the new policy would translate into reasonable bond amounts allowing families to be freed. He said his organization had learned of cases this week in which bonds of $10,000 were being assigned, amounts which no immigrant at these facilities can pay.
Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, criticized the change in policy, saying it will only encourage more families to illegally enter the U.S.
"By refusing to detain unlawful immigrants until their claims are proven legitimate, the Obama Administration is practically guaranteeing that they will disappear into our communities and never be removed from the United States," he said in a statement.