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'Fight Is Not Over,' Say Rights Groups as Biden Admin Lets Separated Families Remain in US

"We will not stop fighting until we end family detention everywhere. President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Secretary Mayorkas must immediately end family detention."

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 1, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. Homeland Security Sec. Alejandro Mayorkas speaks at a March 1, 2021 press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images) 

While applauding the Biden administration for releasing aslyum-seeking families jailed in a Pennsylvania facility and for announcing that relatives separated under the Trump-era "zero tolerance" anti-immigration policy can remain in the United States, immigrant rights advocates on Monday stressed that the fight against family detention is far from over. 

"The devil is in the details and Secretary Mayorkas has to shed all the caveats and qualifications around his announcement and follow through with everything that's necessary to right the wrong."
—Anthony Romero, ACLU 

On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters at a press briefing that the administration is "hoping to reunite families, either here or in their country of origin," and that "if... they seek to reunite here in the United States, we will explore lawful pathways for them to remain" in the country. 

"We are acting as restoratively as possible," Mayorkas said. 

Under the previous administration, 2,800 families were separated in 2018, with more than 500 children still not reunited with their parents—many of whom have been deported to their countries of origin. Under the Biden administration, lawyers and advocates working to reunite families 

Mayorkas' comments came less than 24 hours after Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) announced that all families detained in the Berks County Residential Center, one of three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family lockups, were released on Friday. 

The families' release followed years of pressure and a 2020 lawsuit from advocacy groups including RAICES, Rapid Defense Network, and ALDEA – The People's Justice Center.

On Monday, the Shut Down Berks Coalition—a group of organizations and individuals fighting to close the Pennsylvania ICE facility and end the practice of imprisoning immigrant families in the U.S.—said in a statement it was "delighted" that the families jailed in Berks were free, but that the fight against migrant family detention "is not over." 

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"The decision by ICE to release families is the direct result of the persistence of grassroots organizing, starting with the detained families themselves," the coalition said. It continued:

As we celebrate that these families were released, we also remain on high alert. We know all too well that ICE operates without accountability and without oversight. As much as we hope this is a step in the right direction, we are acutely aware that at any point more families can be brought to this prison and that the same cycle of abuse would repeat itself. Until this prison is permanently shut down and until ICE and the Department of Homeland Security stops using this facility, the fight is not over.

"Regardless of what happens in the coming days and weeks for the Berks County detention center, we already know that the Biden administration is opening new detention sites and continuing family detention in Texas under the guise of 'reception centers,'" the statement added. "In response, we stand unequivocally united with the detained families, immigrant communities, and our colleagues at the [other] detention centers that are still fighting to close." 

"We will not stop fighting until we end family detention everywhere," the statement concluded. "President [Joe] Biden, Vice President [Kamala] Harris, and Secretary Mayorkas must immediately end family detention."

Comparing the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy to the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in U.S. concentration camps during World War II, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero issued a statement saying the civil liberties group "applaud[s] Secretary Mayorkas' commitment to remedy the torture and abuse of families who were separated from their children in immigration proceedings."

"Of course, the devil is in the details and Secretary Mayorkas has to shed all the caveats and qualifications around his announcement and follow through with everything that's necessary to right the wrong," Romero added. 

Monday's announcement follows reports last week that ICE would end long-term detention of migrant families at two notorious South Texas facilities in Dilley and Karnes City, and that asylum-seeking families would be held there for as long as it takes to perform health screenings including Covid-19 testing and arrange shelter and transportation. 

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