Detention déjà vu

In August, advocates cheered a federal court decision slamming the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s practice of detaining in holding facilities thousands of women and children crossing the southern border seeking asylum.

Now, the government is appealing the decision, even while it says it is complying with the order to release the estimated 2,450 parents and children in three federal facilities, two of them run by private prison contractors in Texas.

In deference to the recently departed Yogi Berra, this is déjà vu all over again.

Back in February, a federal court said Homeland Security was breaking the law by detaining asylum seekers without bond, making it impossible to leave detention while their cases were heard. Advocates cheered.

And the government responded by setting bonds — but the bonds averaged between $8,000 and $15,000, well out of the reach of people who left everything behind to flee the violence of their homes in Central America. And so, other than creating more work for pro-bono lawyers, little changed.

Then came the Aug. 24 ruling that the government’s practices violate a decades-old ruling known as the Flores agreement, which prohibits the government from detaining unaccompanied minors. The government argued the ruling applies only to unaccompanied minors, not minors and their parents; the court said it was astonished the government would spend so much money to build facilities to hold thousands of people on such flimsy evidence it would meet legal requirements.

(Unaccompanied minors, if you’re wondering, have to be processed within days and then must be either released to relatives or qualified guardians in the United States, or housed in a shelter certified to care for children until they can be placed with relatives or guardians. It appears that the government has been largely complying with those requirements.)

Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson says his department is complying with the August ruling, even as it files for an appeal based on a differing legal view. Officials say the three detention centers (the third is in Pennsylvania and has not come under the criticism of the two in Texas) are being converted from detention centers into short-term processing centers, where asylum seekers can be interviewed.

McClatchy newspapers report that advocates aren’t buying it:

“Secretary Johnson’s statement today is proof positive that DHS plans to continue detaining Central American families, despite last month’s court order by Judge Gee,” said Joane Lin, ACLU legislative counsel. “Today’s statement dispels any hope that the Obama administration will end family detention on its own, or the practice of placing families in expedited removal.”

In the meantime, a scathing report released Thursday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights alleges immigrant detention facilities are violating detainees' civil and constitutional rights and are failing to meet basic standards of treatment.

“All people, no matter whether they are immigrants or asylum-seekers, deserve to be treated as humans,” Martin R. Castro, chairman of the bipartisan commission, said in a statement. “Now, more than ever before, we need to treat fairly and humanely those persons, especially women and children, who are seeking sanctuary from violence and instability in their countries.”

Because being in the U.S. without status is a civil, not a criminal, offense, the facilities are supposed to be different from punitive ones, but the report claims that the Department of Homeland Security detains “many undocumented immigrants like their criminal counterparts in violation of a detained immigrant’s Fifth Amendment Rights,” the Huffington Post reported. The report also says the government is not providing enough access to attorneys does not do enough to prevent and combat sexual abuse in the centers and does not do enough for asylum seekers who do not speak English or Spanish.

Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at dstockman@ncronline.org.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]

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