SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The U.S. government has asked a federal judge to reconsider her ruling calling for the immediate release of children and their mothers caught entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico, saying recent changes mean federal authorities are no longer violating a ban on holding immigrant children in secure facilities.
In late July, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the release of all children from immigrant family detention centers "without unnecessary delay," along with any mothers not deemed a flight or national security risk.
Justice Department lawyers late Thursday filed documents at the California Central District Court urging Gee to not implement her decision, saying the Department of Homeland Security intends to turn the centers into short-term processing facilities that her ruling "addressed practices and policies that no longer exist."
The government says detention time has been reduced to only a few weeks for most families, and that reducing it further would hinder processing asylum claims and could force the separation of mothers from their children in the event of another wave of migration.
Moreover, further limits on detention "would heighten the risk of another surge in illegal migration," the filing said, "by incentivizing adults to bring children with them on their dangerous journey as a means to avoid detention and gain access to the interior of the United States."
The government asked for another chance to argue its case before the judge, citing the "potentially far-reaching scope of the remedies proposed," and the short time — 90 days — it would have to put them in place.
Laura Lichter, a Denver immigration lawyer working with detained families, said the government had "doubled down" on family detention, and is "enamored of it as a tool, even though a judge has called it both illegal and ineffective."
Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said the agency has asked to the judge to reconsider, "taking into account the current legal landscape and considerable changes we have already made to address the situation."
The government poured millions of dollars into two large detention centers in Texas for women and children after tens of thousands of immigrant families, mostly from Central America, crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. last summer. Many have petitioned for asylum after fleeing gang and domestic violence back home.
The centers in Karnes City and Dilley, both south of San Antonio, currently hold some 1,400 women and children combined, down from more than 2,000 in June. A third, smaller facility is located in Berks County, Pennsylvania. All three are overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement but managed by private prison operators.
In her ruling, Gee found that detaining children violated parts of a 1997 settlement from another case barring immigrant children from being held in secure facilities. She said the settlement covered all children in the custody of immigration officials, even those who entered the country illegally with a parent, and that the facilities were not properly licensed to care for children.
Some 38,000 children arrived with their mothers on the border during the 2014 fiscal year.
Immigration authorities have vowed to make the detention facilities more child-friendly and to provide better oversight. Homeland Security and ICE officials say they are looking to release families as soon as they pass the interviews that are the first hurdle to being granted asylum.
In Thursday's filing, lawyers for the government argued that ICE now aims to detain families no longer than 20 days and that most are being released within about two weeks. Last year the majority of families spent more than a month in detention, and some were detained several months.
In recent weeks, more mothers have been released with their children. Bonds have been drastically reduced, and many of the women have been fitted with electronic ankle monitors, according to immigrant rights lawyers.
More than 170 House Democrats have asked Homeland Security to close the facilities. Immigrant rights advocates have filed two complaints demanding investigations into the centers.