WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A stinging report released on Thursday called on the Obama administration to reverse course and stop detentions of women and children who entered the United States illegally but might qualify for asylum.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said it found evidence that the federal government "was interfering with the
constitutional rights afforded to detained immigrants," including their access to legal representation.
The commission, created in 1957, describes itself as an independent, bipartisan federal agency that helps develop civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of civil rights laws.
A year ago, President Barack Obama responded to a "humanitarian crisis" unfolding on the U.S. southwestern border with Mexico, as tens of thousands of children - some traveling with parents and others alone - arrived from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Among steps he took were a rapid expansion of detention facilities for migrant women and children. It marked a departure from previous practices of largely tracking the immigrants with ankle bracelets and telephone check-ins, which immigration rights groups argued were effective and far less costly.
The arrivals of undocumented children, many claiming they were fleeing drug-related violence, have slowed compared with last year. But there remains a steady stream, placing huge demands on Department of Homeland Security border enforcement and immigration courts.
Republican presidential candidates have called for erecting a border wall and deporting all 12 million undocumented residents, including children, now thought to be in the United States.
According to the lengthy U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, some of the detention facilities "have failed to comply with DHS standards for medical care, including ignoring serious medical conditions."
Furthermore, the commission said it had received reports that children were abused while in custody of federal agents and that families suffered poor conditions while held at Customs and Border Protection stations.
In a dissenting statement, Commissioner Gail Heriot, who identifies her political affiliation as independent, said the report was based on "hearsay-upon-hearsay anecdotes," rather than an exhaustive investigation.
DHS officials were not immediately available for comment.
One recommendation was the immediate release of families from detention in favor of alternate methods for keeping tabs on them.
During the period of Oct. 1, 2014 to July 31, 2015, 30,862 unaccompanied children and 29,407 families were apprehended at the southwestern border. These were down by 51 percent and 53 percent respectively from the same period the previous year, according to government statistics.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)