Texas Center Part Of New Effort To Detain Illegal Immigrants
ARUN RATH: The number of unaccompanied minors and women with small children who crossed into Texas illegally has fallen dramatically since the unprecedented numbers this summer. But the fallout remains as the government struggles with how to house them all. While the majority of unaccompanied minors have been released to family and sponsors across the country, women and their children have not. They are being held in what are called family detention centers while they await their court dates. The move is welcomed by those who want tougher border security, but it has angered advocates and some lawmakers who worry about due process. NPR's John Burnett just returned from a road trip to Dilley, Texas, where a new family detention center is being built. John, tell us more about this center.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's going to be a 2,400-bed family residential center - biggest in the country for immigration customs enforcement. They're calling it a residential center. It's actually a detention camp. But it's going to be family-friendly because they're going to obviously be detaining the children, too. So they're will be playrooms and snacks and drinks, basketball court, soccer field. But it's surrounded by a fence and locked gates, so they can't leave. The first families are supposed to arrive next month. And the idea is to detain and deport these Central Americans as quickly as possible once they've had their asylum claims heard. And then that's sending a message back south to deter others who might be considering the journey.
RATH: Now, this week, we heard from 10 Senate Democrats who were not happy about this new facility. They released a letter criticizing it on Thursday. Can you talk about what they're upset about?
BURNETT: That's right. From the president's own party, Patrick Leahy, the chair of the judiciary committee - he was the first name on it. It's addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and it calls on him to really - to reconsider this whole policy of denying bond and incarcerating family applicants for asylum, albeit in a kinder, gentler facility, like the one I saw at Dilley.
The letter says that women and children fleeing violence in Central America shouldn't be treated as criminals. They don't pose a flight risk or a danger to community, so they shouldn't be locked up. And it also says, the whole expedited review process of these asylum claims amounts to really a violation of due process because the immigrants are not given a real opportunity to tell their stories.
RATH: John, you were on the border when the surge first happened in June. How different do things look today, five months on?
BURNETT: It's really - it's really very different, Arun. The overall numbers of unaccompanied kids and mothers and children continue to fall. You're not seeing at all the crowds inside the Border Patrol holding cells, you know, sitting on the floor, waiting elbow-to-elbow. And it looks like word is getting back to Central America that there are detentions and deportations going on. And also, we know that Mexico is reportedly doing more to stop illegal immigrants on their buses and trains.
But the stepped-up deportations of these Central Americans - they've been really high criticized. Human Rights Watch came out with a report just last week. And they talked to a bunch of Hondurans who said they came to the U.S. because of the fear of criminal gangs in Honduras. And they said that when they returned home, some were living in hiding. They were afraid to go outside in fear of these gangs. And the Hondurans told Human Rights Watch that the U.S. immigration officials at the border ignored their expressions of fear, and they did not allow them to have their asylum claims examined. They were just summarily deported.
RATH: Finally, John, the president has said that he's going to take executive action concerning some immigration policies after the midterm elections. But so far, he's kept us guessing as to what that is going to mean. This president has been criticized for the highest number of deportations in recent times. Is that likely to change, do you think?
BURNETT: Well, a lot of advocates want the president, in his executive action, to open up legal status, to protect from deportation whole new classes of immigrants. As you said, he was once criticized as being the deporter-in-chief earlier this year. But Homeland Security is trying to show the immigration hawks that they're serious about deportations. And so certainly we're seeing even more of that with the detention and the deportation of these mothers and kids from Central America.
RATH: NPR's John Burnett - John, thank you.
BURNETT: It's my pleasure.
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