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U.S. Immigration Agency Again Drops 'Family Friendly' Detention Centers


After facing a lot of criticism, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency is changing the way it handles mothers and children who come to the U.S. illegally. They are now being released in certain circumstances instead of being detained in so-called family-friendly jails. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Call it a failed experiment. The U.S. government is once again backing away from family detention camps after lawsuits and denunciations by human rights groups. Last year, ICE imposed a get-tough policy on mothers and children who came to the U.S. illegally. They were jailed as a strategy to deter more unauthorized immigration from Central America. ICE opened two privately-run facilities in south Texas and called them family residential centers.

LUIS ZAYAS: One mother said it best to me. She said, this is a gilded cage, but it is a cage nevertheless.

BURNETT: Luis Zayas is dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. He evaluated about 45 detained children and mothers who are seeking asylum. At the huge detention center in Dilley, Texas, living areas are called red bird, blue butterfly and brown bear. There are crochet and Zumba classes for moms and soccer games and "Shrek" movies for kids. But Zayas says nothing changes the reality that the children are still prisoners and many were already traumatized by violence when they arrived.

ZAYAS: I've seen an 8-year-old girl who has regressed to breast-feeding from her mom, an 11-year-old boy who began to wet his bed after being held in isolation with his mom for 24 hours and a 16-year-old girl who says she will never be able to trust again.

BURNETT: Immigration and Customs Enforcement said this week understanding the sensitive and unique nature of housing families, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children if they're not a threat to public safety or national security and if they're eligible for asylum. Now detainees can gain their freedom by either posting a bond or wearing an ankle monitor, so long as they promise to show up at their asylum hearing. Wendy Perez is 23. She and her 2-year-old daughter, Jennifer, arrived in Texas from the Atlantic Coast of Honduras in early May. They fled what she says are murderous drug gangs and an abusive partner. Mother and daughter were released Tuesday night after Wendy's father, a janitor in North Carolina, paid her $2,000 bond after a judge lowered it from $5,000.

WENDY PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "We suffered a lot in the two months that we were locked up in Dilley," she says. "The medical care is terrible there." She says her daughter was given an adult dose of hepatitis A vaccine, which made her sick. The girl was among 250 children who were accidentally given adult vaccines, according to ICE. Mohammad Abdollahi is with a San Antonio immigrant advocacy group called RAICES.

MOHAMMAD ABDOLLAHI: While this announcement is good, we only really celebrate it because we've gone through a year of having to deal with the worst situation of families being locked up indefinitely.

BURNETT: This is the second time the federal government has tried and failed at family detention. In 2009, ICE stopped its policy of detaining families at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center north of Austin after an ACLU lawsuit. The ACLU sued the Department of Homeland Security again this time around. Lawyers believe that was a big factor in the government's recent change in policy. Advocates who visit the Dilley center say as of Monday, detainees are being released in greater numbers, including the Honduran, Wendy Perez.

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "It feels like I'm dreaming," says the relieved mother from a lawyer's office in San Antonio. "My fear is that I may wake up and I'll be back in the detention center." John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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