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Immigrant Detention: O'Malley, Sanders Call to Close Centers

First Posted: Sep 25, 2015 07:58 PM EDT
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The U.S. federal government defended its immigrant detention practices, despite objections from congressional lawmakers and presidential candidates, as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) filed an appeal against the potential release of detained immigrant children.

In response to U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee's late July ruling, against the detainment of immigrant women and children due to violating the 1997 Flores v. Reno settlement that prohibited the detainment of migrant parents and children together unless there's a significant flight risk or public safety threat, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson disagreed with "a portion" of her decision.

"We disagree with portions of the legal reasoning in the decision and have filed a notice of appeal preserving our ability to challenge those portions. But we remain committed to reforming our family residential center policies, as we have been doing for the past several months," said Johnson in a statement released on Sept. 18, noting his department's reforms have made family detention "short-term in most cases."

According to Johnson, the DHS is transitioning the family "residential" centers into "processing" centers, where detainees can be interviewed and screened instead of long-term detention.

"Families who establish a credible or reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries are now being released after asserting their claim, under conditions designed to ensure they will appear in immigration court for their case," said Johnson, adding the DHS has been expediting, "to the greatest extent possible," the removal -- or deportation -- of detainees not eligible of U.S. relief. "We take seriously our obligation to secure our borders and will continue our aggressive enforcement of our nation's immigration laws."

Within the Democratic presidential field, the candidates have offered different proposals on how to address immigrant detention.

Still serving in the Senate, Bernie Sanders introduced the "Justice is Not For Sale Act of 2015" on Sept. 17. The focus of the bill is to ban private prisons and eliminate bed quotas of immigrants held in detention. Sanders' bill would call for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency within DHS, to improve monitoring and inspections of detention facilities by either the Homeland Security secretary or an independent and third party auditor. The final provision of the law would be the termination of family detention, unless an individual poses a risk to the community.

"This crisis of over incarceration has greatly harmed our society, pulling families apart, and straining government budgets. This bill will begin to turn that around," said Sanders, based on prepared remarks about the bill.

Since announcing his immigration reform plan in July during a roundtable discussion in New York City, fellow Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley said he would end the detention of non-dangerous immigrants and their families and close the "inhumane" facilities. The former Maryland governor said he would limit detention to only individuals who pose a clear threat to public safety.

Following Johnson's latest appeal, O'Malley criticized the DHS secretary and the federal government's actions towards Central American families, but also connected the events to the refugee crisis in Europe.

"Notwithstanding the court order to release them without unnecessary delay, the U.S. government is continuing to intern Central American mothers and children behind barbed wire fences claiming that doing so will 'prevent others from choosing to migrate.' If we follow this logic, penning up Syrian refugees in similar isolated and inhumane cages would stop them from fleeing the war that has caused one of the most devastating refugee crises we've seen," said O'Malley. "Refugees don't choose to migrate; they flee to save their lives."

According to O'Malley, the U.S. is not a nation that would detain innocent women and children who are fleeing from violence. "[W]e're a nation that gives them refuge," said O'Malley.

Hillary Clinton has been criticized for her stance on immigrant detention. The former secretary of state acknowledged the problems with immigrant detention, specifically calling for more resources for detainees to receive their due process and identify family members in the U.S.

"I would be putting a lot of resources into doing that, but my position has been and remains the same," said Clinton in August.

During an interview with Univision, based on the transcript provided by the Spanish-language channel, Clinton said immigrant children should not be deported back to the violence awaiting in their native country, and children will have their due process but also look into "what would happen if they went back."

"Of course, we should not send any child back to the kind of harm that could await them," Clinton told Univision. "So yes, some would be sent back after a fair hearing. But a lot of them wouldn't be, and what I've been arguing for is let's get the resources in place, so that we can actually find out what happens to these children."

Last May, during Clinton's immigration roundtable discussion from Nevada, she said, "I don't think we should put children and vulnerable people into big detention facilities because I think they're at risk. I think that their physical and mental health are at risk."

Clinton has yet to echo O'Malley and Sanders on closing the immigrant detention centers.

As Latin Post reported, 178 House Democrats penned a letter to Johnson to end family detention. The letter came after Gee's ruling and after eight House Democrats visited two immigrant detention centers in late May.

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For the latest updates, follow Latin Post's Politics Editor Michael Oleaga on Twitter: @EditorMikeO or contact via email: m.oleaga@latinpost.com.

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