By Jon Herskovitz and Jim Forsyth
(Reuters) - U.S. detention centers for immigrant families treat those in custody as political pawns and make it difficult for them to obtain due process under U.S. laws, activists said on Friday.
The U.S. government has been rapidly building and expanding facilities to accommodate a flood of children from Central America crossing into the United States, which has placed pressure on the Obama administration to fix what is seen as a humanitarian and diplomatic problem.
Advocates for the immigrants said those detained are often rushed through immigration proceedings without being given a chance for reasonable legal representation, and that they are held in facilities that can be harmful for mothers and their children.
"This practice is not only inhumane. It is a waste of taxpayer money," Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women's Refugee Commission, told a teleconference with journalists.
A decision by President Barack Obama this month to delay executive action on immigration until after November elections has hit hard in the detention centers on the southwest border, where hundreds of families are held without the chance of being released on bond, the activists said.
"They are being treated as political pawns," said Laura Lichter, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The facilities, which housed about 100 people earlier this year, are set to expend to accommodate as many as 4,000, the advocates said. They estimated the cost for the United States at $250 million a year.
In July, U.S. officials took journalists on a tour of a renovated facility for the families in Karnes, a rural Texas city about an hour's drive from San Antonio, showing off brightly painted rooms, 24-hour medical facilities and two immigration courtrooms to process those detained.
Immigration officials said on Thursday plans are in the works to build a new family holding center in South Texas for nearly 700 people.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda said the agency's "family residential shelters are an effective option to maintain family units as they await the outcome of immigration hearings or return to their home countries."
U.S. officials said those detained are being treated humanely and fairly under U.S. law.
The number of children crossing illegally on their own into the United States dropped 70 percent from June to August, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Monday.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)