By Richard Cowan and Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The surge in child migration from Central America is receding but the United States is aggressively pushing ahead with plans to expand detentions, a little-publicized part of a broader campaign to deter illegal migrants.
Under pressure from opposition Republicans to stem the unprecedented flow of children earlier this year, the Obama administration beginning in June pledged to speedily return them to their home countries and help better secure borders in Mexico and Central America.
But a third leg of that strategy has quietly created a network of family detention centers to lock up some children and their parents rather than freeing them pending deportation hearings.
The centers, which were opened this summer to receive families with children, are in Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes, Texas. Another one in Texas is scheduled to open in coming months. With little public debate, they have effectively become flagships of the Obama administration's "get tough" campaign to discourage future border crossings.
These augment a Pennsylvania facility that has been in operation since 2001, but holds only small numbers of people.
It represents a U-turn for the Obama administration, which for five years favored less restrictive programs, such as ankle bracelets and telephone check-ins, for keeping tabs on families while they awaited court decisions on whether or not they would be deported.
In 2012, the administration noted these programs saved "many millions of dollars."
"The Obama administration in 2009 decided that it was going to turn away from family detention ... the turn back is really alarming," said Carl Takei of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The White House referred briefly to "increased detainment" in a fact sheet it issued on July 8 on an emergency funding request to Congress. But the policy change, which immigration groups characterize as a major shift for the administration, has not been laid out in detail.
The big expansion of detention beds, from only 90 last year to about 3,700 by the end of this year, comes amid data showing that the seasonal migration wave has receded. The number of families coming over the border declined to 3,295 in August, from 16,329 in June.
"These (family detention) facilities will help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States," a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman said.
Human rights groups counter that the new policy is badly misguided. Michelle Brane, director of a migrant rights program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said children, some of them infants and toddlers, cannot be properly cared for in large detention centers.
The policy shift on detention centers, which has not been debated much in Congress, follows President Barack Obama's warning last summer to illegal migrants from Central America that they would be detained and promptly shipped back home if they attempted to make the dangerous journey.
Immigration advocates argue that many of these children have valid claims for asylum and flee to the United States because their governments cannot protect them from both gang and domestic violence.
The detention centers are intended to discourage another migrant wave that some fear will start early next year, said Marshall Fitz, an immigration specialist at the Center for American Progress, which has close ties to the White House.
March to June, when it is neither dangerously cold nor hot, have been peak months for children, either traveling alone or with their parents, to brave the journey to the U.S. border by foot and atop trains.
"We could see the same thing come back again and I want to build against that," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Thursday.
Advocacy groups and defense lawyers donating their services to detainees complain of unsafe conditions, poor medical care and inadequate access to lawyers at the government-run center in Artesia and the Karnes facility, which is operated by the GEO Group, a for-profit operator of prisons.
Responding to allegations of sexual assault at Karnes, ICE said the agency was "committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner" and that it has a "zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or assault." GEO has denied the allegations.
A Department of Homeland Security inspector general report this month said that while conditions in Artesia were improving, more progress was needed.
Congress could weigh in on the new detention policy later this year when it debates a bill to fund agencies administering the program.
(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York, editing by Ross Colvin)