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Why hundreds of migrant families in long-term detention may get new home

Nearly 2,000 individuals are currently being held in three long-term detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania. Homeland Security wants to change that.

Eric Gay/AP/File
Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border, in Karnes City, Texas, Sept. 10, 2014. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says federal officials are making "substantial changes" to end the long-term detention of migrant families who are being held mainly at two large facilities in Texas.

Long-term detention for migrant families is on its way out, Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson announced Wednesday.

Secretary Johnson said he has approved a plan that would set reasonable bond amounts for migrant families who can demonstrate to officials in interviews that they have reason to 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."

Several hundred migrant families are currently being held in two facilities in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. Immigration officials said a total of 1,834 individuals were detained in the three centers as of the end of last month.

Johnson said in the future family detention centers would be used for shorter-term stays; “within a reasonable timeframe,” families would either begin the process of applying for asylum, or they would be deported.

The plan follows a series of measures Immigrations and Customs Enforcement announced in May designed to improve the way family residential centers are run. The reforms as a whole reflect an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants coming into the United States as families.

“Last summer we faced an unprecedented spike in illegal migration from Central America,” Johnson said. “A substantial part of that migration was adults who brought their children with them.”

During the height of the migrant crisis, immigration officials apprehended more than 60,000 families attempting to enter the US illegally. Most came from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Lourdes Medrano of the Christian Science Monitor spoke last year with Maria Vicente, a young mother from Guatemala who made the dangerous trek to the US with two young sons. She paid a smuggler the Guatemalan equivalent of $4,000 to secure transport.

In the week it took for Vicente and her sons to cross two borders, they fled from a bus to elude immigration agents, dodged three diamondback rattlesnakes, and went hungry while stranded in Mexico's backcountry. The experiences that she shared show how dangerous and troubling the trek can be, yet they are also not the horrors that were widely publicized this summer – about individuals being subjected to violence and even raped during their journey.

For Vicente, the decision to come to the US was largely a pragmatic one, taking into account the risks of trip, the poverty she and her family endured in Guatemala, her yearning to keep her family together, and the potential for a better life. In fact, she had already lived in the US, working for five years in Florida before returning to Guatemala in 2010.

Many of the women and children currently living in longterm detention facilities have similar stories.

Immigration advocates and attorneys criticized the DHS’s plan for allowing family detention to continue at all.

"In general, anything that shows a breath of sanity in this process, that understands that detention is not something that is necessary and should not be long-term, is welcomed,” said Laura Lichter, an attorney who has represented families held at the Texas centers. “But I'm extremely disappointed the secretary just doesn't seem to get that family detention is wrong and is not necessary.”

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