Two House Democrats from California called for the Department of Homeland Security to end its practice of holding families seeking asylum in jail-like detention centers while they wait for their cases to play out.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose said that after visiting Syrians who had fled to Jordan to escape violence in their homeland, she found the conditions under which immigrant women and children are being held in the U.S. more appalling.
"The Jordanians are treating the refugees from Syria a heck of a lot better than we're treating immigrants from Honduras," Lofgren said.
Lofgren was joined at a news conference in Washington by Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and a former detainee, Maria Rosa Lopez. The three representatives have been frequent critics of federal immigration policy.
A surge of women and children from Central America last summer overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system. As a short-term fix, the government placed those seeking asylum in mass detention centers, where many remain today.
Last week, the Homeland Security Department ordered a wide-ranging review of its detention facilities, something it says will improve conditions.
But Gutierrez dismissed the review ordered by the department as "cosmetic issues" that fail to address the broader problem, detention itself.
In the past, asylum seekers were permitted to live with relatives already in the U.S. while their cases were adjudicated, something Gutierrez said should continue now.
"It's violence to keep a child in jail," he said. "You should not be punished because there is no protection in the country that you're fleeing from."
Immigration officials have defended the facilities. Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said this month that for immigrants awaiting court decisions, family detention centers are a "humane alternative for maintaining family unity."
"Family residential centers are one of many tools used to address the growth in apprehensions of parents and children at our southern border," Christensen said.
Lopez was detained with her son after fleeing Honduras. They were held for six months at the Karnes City, Texas, detention center.
The water at the facility tasted bad, so the families bought bottled water. But at $1 each, Lopez said, they had to conserve.
"My son kept telling me, 'Get me out of here, get me out of here,' but I couldn't," she said.
Lopez said she posted bond, but an clerical error delayed her release. Her son threatened to jump off the facility's roof if she couldn't get him out.
"Other sons have told their mothers, 'I want to kill myself,' because they've been here so long," Lopez said.
Dree Collopy, a volunteer attorney with the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said those in the detention centers meet the criteria for obtaining asylum.
"I can say that, without a doubt, these women and children are refugees," Collopy said. "They have come here seeking protection from the horrific violence they have suffered."