Dec 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden to stop holding undocumented families in detention centers

An immigrant child plays in front of patriotic phrases and symbols covering the walls in a gymnasium at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's South Texas Family Residential Center
An immigrant child plays in South Texas Family Residential Center. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Biden administration is ending the practice of holding undocumented migrant families in detention centers, turning to remote tracking technology such as ankle bracelets as alternatives.

Driving the news: As of Friday, the U.S. had zero migrant families in detention facilities, according to internal government data obtained by Axios — with the last and largest facility used for the practice now being slated to hold only single adults.

  • More than 100 migrant family members were removed or released from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, between Thursday and Friday of last week.
  • That brought the total detained family population to zero, according to the internal data.
  • "ICE has chosen to shift its usage of the Dilley facility to focus on single adults," an ICE spokesperson confirmed to Axios, "consistent with the administration’s goals of addressing irregular migration while supporting a system of border management that is orderly, safe and humane.”

Why it matters: The change marks a significant shift in immigration policy, and the fulfillment of an early call from then-presidential candidate Joe Biden to release families from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention.

  • Republican critics — and even some fellow Democrats from border districts — have complained the administration's promise to be more accommodating to migrants has encouraged a northward flow all year.
  • There were only two other smaller centers designated for families: Karnes County Staging Center in Texas, and Berks Family Staging Center in Pennsylvania.
  • Neither is being used for families anymore, according to the officials.

How it happened: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has increasingly relied on alternatives to detention — such as the bracelets and traceable cellphones — to keep track of undocumented migrants who illegally cross the border and are subsequently released into the U.S.

  • As of Monday, there were nearly 150,000 migrants enrolled in such programs, according to separate DHS data provided to Axios. The number includes single adults and any family members who are actually provided a tracking device — not any other spouses or children.
  • The government has managed to more quickly enroll families in these kinds of programs shortly after they cross the border, reducing the need for longer-term housing.
  • It's also secured expensive contracts with hotels to use when the intake process cannot get done quickly enough, rather than detention centers. DHS will continue to rely on two such hotels, according to one DHS official familiar.

The big picture: Earlier this year, the Biden administration transformed two of the family centers into quick-turn processing facilities, with the goal of releasing families within 72 hours.

  • Now, they're altogether doing away with using these sites for families.
  • The Border Patrol released tens of thousands of families without so much as a tracking device due to the unusually high numbers in the summer. Border numbers have been declining from a peak earlier this year, but they remain higher than usual for the fall and winter months.
  • There's been an influx of migrant adults from farther-flung countries, including nations that make deportations more complicated. It's one reason why the detention center in Dilley will still be used for single adults.

What to watch: While the administration has ended the detention of migrant families, it continues turning back thousands at the border under the Trump-era COVID-19 policy known as Title 42.

  • It's also reimplemented Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy under court order, which could turn back even more family asylum seekers.
  • They would be forced to wait in Mexican shelters while their cases are considered in the United States.
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