The immigration detention debate has heightened as more than 130 congressional lawmakers called for immigrant family detention to end, but U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson defended the program and its progress.

During an address at Rice University, Johnson acknowledged more detention space has been created in Dilley and Karnes, Texas. He reiterated the need for additional space following last summer's spike in undocumented unaccompanied immigrant children. He noted that, by law, the immigrant children are transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but the children are required to be "promptly place them in a setting that is in the best interests of the child."

"Prior to last year, out of 34,000 beds for immigration detention in all of DHS, we had only 95 for adults with children, as they waited for resolution of their immigration cases. We needed to build more, and we did. There are objections to family residential centers and I want to address them," said Johnson, adding the rate of immigrant family apprehensions at the southern U.S. border declined "dramatically" since summer 2014.

"In fact, most families apprehended at the southern border are not detained. They are released and instructed to appear in court for their immigration case. Even among those who arrive at family residential centers, most are released on conditions intended to secure their appearance at court for their immigration cases," continued Johnson, noting who noted that, as of April 25, 70 percent of detained immigrant families had a length of stay of less than 60 days. For 50 percent of the detained families, their stay was under 30 days.

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Johnson said he understands immigrant detention is a "sensitive" topic, but he stated he's committed to continually evaluate its procedures. The DHS secretary revealed a new initiative was implemented several weeks ago to enroll apprehended families into "alternatives-to-detention" (ATD) program. Johnson said he wants more people, including families, to be involved in its ATD program. He claimed the DHS' support for ATD is evident in its 2016 fiscal year budget request to Congress, highlighting ATD funds to cover 53,000 participants -- an increase from the current 36,000 participants.

According to Johnson, a "number of other new measures" have been implemented.

"First, as of last week, we began a review of the cases of any families detained beyond 90 days, and every 60 days thereafter, to evaluate whether detention during the pendency of their immigration case is still appropriate," said Johnson. "Priority is being given to the review of the cases of families who have been in these residential centers the longest."

"Second, we have discontinued invoking general deterrence as a factor in custody determinations in all cases involving families. Third, we are creating a Federal Advisory Committee of outside experts to advise the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and me concerning family residence centers," Johnson continued.

The final step was ensuring access to counsel, attorney-client meeting rooms, comprehensive medical care, educational services, social workers and "continuous monitoring" of the overall detention facilities' conditions.


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