WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is considering reviving the practice of detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally, the same policy the president shut down for the past two years because he wanted a more humane immigration system, officials familiar with the law said Monday. the discussions.
Although no final decision has been made, the move would be a sea change for President Biden, who entered office vowing to take a more compassionate approach to the border after the harsh policies of his predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump.
The Biden administration has largely ended the practice of family detention, instead releasing families in the United States temporarily and using ankle bracelets, traceable cell phones, or other methods to track them.
But the administration has turned to more restrictive measures as it struggles to manage a surge in immigrants fleeing authoritarian rule and economic ruin at home. Officials also fear a surge at the border after May 11, when a public health measure that has allowed authorities to quickly expel migrants expires.
Biden’s tough new measures, including a crackdown announced last month that could disqualify the vast majority of migrants from seeking asylum at the southern border, have angered advocates who say the president is reneging on promises. campaign and taking a Trump-era approach. to immigration.
“Ending the inhumane practice of family detention has been one of the only positive immigration policy decisions of the Biden administration,” said Leecia Welch, lead attorney in the case that led to the 1997 Flores agreement, which limits the time that children can spend in detention and sets minimum standards for detention facilities.
“It is heartbreaking to hear that there could be a return to the use of this Trump-era practice,” he said.
The White House declined to comment, but administration officials reject any comparison to Trump and say Biden’s policies are focused on finding ways to decrease the number of illegal crossings and expand the ability of migrants to seek legal pathways.
The Department of Homeland Security said no decisions had been made as the administration prepared for the end of the public health measure, known as Title 42.
“The administration will continue to prioritize the safe, orderly, and humane processing of migrants,” Luis Miranda, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement.
But top White House immigration and national security advisers have held several meetings in recent days to discuss their options, including reinstating the family detention policy, according to five current and former administration officials with knowledge of the discussions.
Officials said the Department of Homeland Security is outlining what it would need to do to restart temporary family detention before May 11.
One of the officials warned that the administration would follow the court agreement that sets a 20-day limit on detaining families, rather than holding them for weeks or even months as previous administrations have done. Another option would be to continue the practice now in place: release the families into the country where they would be traced and required to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office, the official said.
How Times reporters cover politics. We trust our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members can vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for political candidates or causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money or raising money for any political candidate or electoral cause.
Advocates of family detention argue that it would deter migrant families from traveling north. But the practice has long been controversial, in part because of years of scientific consensus that detaining minors, even with their parents, can cause developmental harm.
Two of the federal government’s medical consultants in 2018 said they identified a “high risk of harm” to migrant children at the facility. The consultants uncovered serious problems, including a child who lost a third of his body weight and a baby with a brain hemorrhage that went undiagnosed for five days.
Family detention was also used by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both faced criticism for the conditions in which they held migrant families. A facility in New Mexico was forced to close in 2014 after complaints about conditions there.
The Trump administration tried to expand the practice and detain families indefinitely to deter immigrants from crossing illegally. But Trump’s attempts to end limits on how long minors could be held were blocked by the courts.
The Biden administration would face serious logistical hurdles in reinstating family detention, starting with finding space to house families. The facility would also need to be configured to provide educational programs and play areas. Spaces that previously housed families are now used for single adults.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees the detention network, already faces a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions.
The plan also assumes that government officials could quickly screen families for asylum, admitting or deporting them within a 20-day period. The average stay in an ICE detention center is about 37 days, according to internal data. Also, there will never be enough space to hold all the migrant families, officials said. And the government would need a much larger fleet of planes to deport everyone.
Three of the officials who spoke to The New York Times described concerns that family detention would encourage parents to send their children to the US border alone rather than risk being detained as a family. Children who come to the United States without a parent or legal guardian are not removed. Instead, they are taken into government custody and eventually released to live with a family member or other sponsor. That program, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, has come under recent scrutiny after a New York Times investigation revealed that many migrant children turned over to sponsors and relatives are doing hazardous work that violates child labor laws.
Critics of family detention say that putting families in the position of deciding to send their children to the United States without them is simply de facto family separation, a harsh measure used during the Trump administration when 5,500 children were separated from their parents. on the southern border. Biden and other Democrats criticized the practice and vowed not to restart it.
Aside from the humanitarian implications, the family detention policy would carry political risk for Biden. Republicans have called for tougher immigration measures, accusing the president of having an “open borders” policy.
But Biden would almost certainly feel rejected by the Democrats.
As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden had campaigned against the Trump administration’s use of family detention.
“Children must be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately,” he wrote in June 2020. Twitter post after a federal judge ordered the release of migrant children from detention centers due to the coronavirus pandemic. “This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: families should be together.”