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Federal Officials Threaten Migrant Families Will be Split if Detention Policy Ruled Illegal

Advocates are calling for family detention centers to be dismantled due to inhumane and illegal holding of refugees

Many have described the conditions within the immigration prisons as inhumane and have reported allegations of sexual abuse. (Photo: Ignotus the Mage/cc/flickr)

Many have described the conditions within the immigration prisons as inhumane and have reported allegations of sexual abuse. (Photo: Ignotus the Mage/cc/flickr)

The U.S. government may begin separating migrant children from their families in an effort to dismantle controversial family detention centers, McClatchy revealed on Tuesday after obtaining court documents about the ongoing dispute.

Attorneys for migrant families are seeking clarification on a tentative federal court ruling which found that the Obama administration's policy of detaining mothers and children fleeing violence in their home countries violates a previous court agreement on the treatment of migrant families.

The detention of migrant families has surged under the Obama administration and many have described the conditions within the immigration prisons as inhumane and have reported allegations of sexual abuse. By spring of 2015, migrant advocacy group the Detention Watch Network estimates (pdf) that the capacity of family detention centers will reach over 3,500 beds, compared with less than 100 in spring 2013.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee has given the Department of Justice and representatives of migrant families until May 24 to come up with an agreement before she issues her final ruling. At issue is the 1997 decision Flores v. Meese (pdf), which found that a minor should be released to a parent or guardian or held in the least restrictive facility available. The ruling does not give any specific instruction regarding the detention of entire families.

Federal attorneys are warning that the entire family detention system will "collapse" if Gee rules that current federal policy of detaining families is illegal, threatening that such a move might split migrant families.

According to McClatchy reporting on court documents:

Leon Fresco, a deputy assistant attorney general, warned the court that such a ruling would actually encourage separation of parents and children and turn minors into "de facto unaccompanied children." 

“This isn’t a situation where we want to detain the mother. These are situations where we have to detain the mother, your honor,” Fresco told the court. 

Immigration rights advocates say that people seeking asylum should not be detained at all and that the imprisonment of migrant families is psychologically damaging for children and parents alike.

Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, told Common Dreams that the claim by U.S. authorities that detaining families is a more humane option is a "callous remark," given the inhumanity of locking up innocent people, particularly in light of the reasons they have come to the U.S.. The majority of these families are fleeing violence, Shah said, and many have even passed "credible fear" interviews and are eligible for asylum.

"This country supposedly supports humanitarian causes and protects people. It should be providing support instead of locking these individuals up," Shah continued. Instead, private prison corporations like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, who run these facilities are "making enormous profits off of them."

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