WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives has called on President Barack Obama to suspend deportations of Central American families until problems are resolved at the newly opened detention facilities holding women and children.
The 32 House Democrats, led by Representatives Zoe Lofgren of California and John Conyers of Michigan, wrote Obama on Monday to voice concerns about the legal process at the detention centers and the conditions in those centers.
"We believe it is critical that no detained families be removed (deported) until we can ensure that we are not returning such families to face persecution and torture abroad," the letter said.
The lawmakers also expressed doubt about Obama's plans to significantly expand family detentions with the planned opening of a facility in Dilley, Texas, that eventually will hold up to 2,400 women and children.
This expansion, the lawmakers wrote, should be put on hold "until serious problems have been resolved" in existing detention centers.
Their complaints came 10 days after high-ranking U.S. Senate Democrats called on the Obama administration to reverse its policy of detaining families from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, who earlier this year rushed over the southwestern U.S. border with Mexico by the tens of thousands.
Many, if not most, of the families are seeking asylum in the United States, saying they are victims of violence their home countries cannot effectively counter. Drug-related gang violence is rife in the three countries, as is domestic violence.
As the numbers of unaccompanied children and children traveling with parents rose this summer, the Obama administration adopted a get-tough policy aimed at discouraging future immigrants from making the dangerous journey, often with high-paid human traffickers who exploit them.
For the first time since 2009, Obama authorized the detention of some of these families with children who range in age from toddlers to teenagers. Previously, nearly all of them would have been released into monitored programs pending their court hearings.
The lawmakers said the government lacked authority to impose either no bonds or high bonds to keep families in detention, which they said had the effect of setting more stringent restraints on women and children compared with all other undocumented immigrants apprehended.
The House Democrats recounted a story of a mother and child who were detained at a Karnes, Texas, center even after the mother cleared a preliminary asylum interview.
The woman's child was suffering from brain cancer, the lawmakers wrote, and the two were released "only after a pro bono attorney obtained further documentation from a medical expert that the child's condition was life threatening."
The Democrats also cited a lack of workers with child care experience in the detention centers. And they complained that immigrant mothers are loathe to recount, in the presence of their children, sexual assaults and domestic violence they suffered. Failure to do so "could prevent the asylum seeker from establishing the burden of proof" necessary to avoid deportation, they wrote.
(Reporting By Richard Cowan; Editing by John Whitesides and Steve Orlofsky)