Posted on March 7, 2023

U.S. Is Said to Consider Reinstating Detention of Migrant Families

Eileen Sullivan and Zolan Kanno-Youngs, New York Times, March 6, 2023

The Biden administration is considering reviving the practice of detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally — the same policy the president shut down over the past two years because he wanted a more humane immigration system, officials familiar with the discussions said Monday.

Although no final decision has been made, the move would be a stark reversal for President Biden, who came into office promising to adopt a more compassionate approach to the border after the harsh policies of his predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump.

The Biden administration has largely ended the practice of family detention, instead releasing families into the United States temporarily and using ankle bracelets, traceable cellphones or other methods to keep track of them.

But the administration has turned to more restrictive measures as it struggles to handle a rise in migrants fleeing authoritarian governments and economic ruin in their countries. Officials also fear a surge at the border after May 11, when a public health measure that has allowed authorities to swiftly expel migrants expires.

Mr. Biden’s tough new measures, including a crackdown announced last month that could disqualify a vast majority of migrants from being able to seek asylum at the southern border, have infuriated advocates who say the president is breaking campaign promises and embracing a Trump-era approach to immigration.

“Ending the inhumane practice of family detention has been one of the only positive immigration policy decisions of the Biden administration,” said Leecia Welch, a lead lawyer in the case that led to the 1997 Flores settlement, which limits the time children can spend in detention and establishes minimum standards for holding facilities.

“It is heartbreaking to hear there could be a return to the Trump-era use of this practice,” she said.


One of the officials cautioned that the administration would follow the court settlement that sets a 20-day limit for detaining families, rather than holding them for weeks or even months as previous administrations did. Another option would be continuing the practice in place now — releasing families into the country, where they would be tracked and required to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office, the official said.


Three of the officials who spoke to The New York Times described concerns that family detention would encourage parents to send their children to the U.S. border alone instead of risking detention as a family. Children who arrive in the United States without a parent or legal guardian are not expelled. {snip}


Aside from the humanitarian implications, the family detention policy would carry political risk for Mr. Biden. Republicans have called for stricter immigration measures, accusing the president of having an “open borders” policy.

But Mr. Biden would almost certainly feel blowback from Democrats.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden had campaigned against the Trump administration’s use of family detention.

“Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately,” he wrote in a June 2020 Twitter post after a federal judge ordered the release of migrant children from detention facilities because of the coronavirus pandemic. “This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: Families belong together.”