Federal officials face increasing pressure to stop detaining immigrant families and release more than 1,300 mothers and children.
At least 600 families — many of whom fled violence in Central America — were being held at three federal detention centers, officials said recently.
As of April, half had stayed there less than a month and 70% for less than two months, according to a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified because the official was unauthorized to speak publicly.
More than 4,500 individuals were in family detention centers from July through April, the official said, with 67% of them released and 664 removed from the country.
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee became the latest group to call on the government to end family detention. The group's leaders posted a petition on their website Friday demanding that the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement release the children and mothers, including a woman who had attempted suicide and others who were pregnant.
"Neither ICE nor the private owners of its family detention centers are capable of providing the levels of care for vulnerable people like pregnant mothers that are even marginally acceptable by any humane, legal, moral or American standard," said Rachel Gore Freed, a program leader with the group who has visited the Karnes City, Texas, detention center.
Officials said a woman at the Karnes City detention center was under observation after suffering a wrist abrasion, but they denied there had been miscarriages or attempted suicides.
Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman, said the agency "takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care."
The agency "is committed to ensuring that all individuals housed in our family residential centers receive timely and appropriate medical screenings and treatment," including "pregnancy screenings at arrival, onsite prenatal care and education, and remote access to specialists for pregnant women who remain in custody," she said.
Some pregnant women have been released, but decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, she said.
Last month, 136 Democratic members of Congress called on Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to stop confining families. "We cannot continue to hear reports of serious harm to children in custody and do nothing about it," they said. "Detaining mothers and children in jail-like settings is not the answer."
An 18-year-old court settlement is complicating the situation. Flores vs. Meese required the U.S. to release migrant children or house them in the "least restrictive environment."
Immigrant rights advocates have sued, contending that family detention violated the Flores settlement.
A federal judge in Los Angeles agreed at an April hearing.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee made a preliminary ruling that immigrant children and mothers could not be held at unlicensed facilities such as those in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and that it was inappropriate to hold a parent and child unless there was a flight or safety risk, according to a memo from one of the attorneys involved.
Gee has issued a gag order in the case, but the latest developments are detailed in memos circulated by the families' attorneys and a transcript of the April 24 hearing.
Gee said she would not alter the Flores settlement, but would allow the two sides to negotiate a revised agreement before her final ruling, which could be issued as early as Monday.
Immigrant rights advocates initially were optimistic that Gee's ruling would help mothers and children win their release.
"Immigrant 'family detention' policy is gonna end," wrote one of the attorneys handling the case, Peter Schey, in a Facebook post after the hearing, adding: "Court ruled the policy violates a nationwide settlement we reached in the Flores case few years back. Court gave DHS [Homeland Security] 30 days to meet with us to figure out how to end 'family detention' that violates the Flores settlement which generally limits detention of children to 72 hours. Will keep you posted."
But Leon Fresco, a deputy assistant attorney general, warned Gee that if her initial ruling stood, it would encourage the administration to separate parents and children, turning youths into "de facto unaccompanied children."
"This isn't a situation where we want to detain the mother. These are situations where we have to detain the mother" because she is flight risk, he said, adding, "We're not going to release the adults."
Fresco argued that the Flores agreement didn't take into account family detention, which began in 2001, and is necessary if the parent is a flight risk or if children need to be kept with a parent for safety reasons, he said.
If the Flores agreement means the government must release children without their parents, Fresco said, "the outcome of this is going to be to separate families, create uncertainty where we don't have uncertainty now and to endanger children."
Gee appeared unmoved. Fresco "is simply saying that he thinks all hell will break loose if I issue my order and cause this whole system of residential centers to collapse of its own weight," she said.
The Homeland Security Department ramped up family detention last summer as more than 68,000 families crossed the southern border.
In addition to a nearly 100-bed facility in central Pennsylvania, the agency opened three larger family detention centers in Texas and New Mexico. The New Mexico center has since closed, but federal officials are expanding the others in Karnes City and Dilley to house 3,500 detainees this summer.
After last summer's surge, multiple lawsuits concerning family detention were filed in California, Texas and Washington, D.C.
This year, the American Civil Liberties Union won the release on bond of some asylum-seeking mothers after an immigration officer or judge found they had a "credible fear" of persecution at home.
In response, ICE officials announced May 14 that they would improve family detention conditions and create a review process for those detained for more than three months. They are also appointing an in-house official to review conditions at the three family detention centers and a panel of experts to advise Johnson about family detention.
A week later, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) delivered a scathing critique of family detention, comparing conditions to what she had seen in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.
"Jordanians are treating refugees from Syria a heck of a lot better than we're treating immigrants from Honduras," she said.
Women detained at the Karnes City facility have sued and complained of abuse, but those claims have not been substantiated by ICE and Homeland Security inspector general investigations.
Christensen, the ICE spokeswoman, said she could not discuss pending cases, but called family detention centers a "humane alternative for maintaining family unity" during waits for court hearings.
As for the government's suggestion that it might have to release children while keeping parents in custody, it's unclear how that would work.
"Forcing that parent to choose who to give their child to seems to be overreaching," said Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration attorney representing five of the mothers.
Some detained mothers don't have other relatives in the U.S., and others have relatives who work and would be unable to care for the children, Brandmiller said.
A client at Karnes City, Raymunda Pastor, 35, fled Guatemala with her 4-year-old daughter in August when her husband was found hanged after a land dispute.
"There's no one to release the child to" in the U.S., Brandmiller said, adding: "We allow convicted criminals out on bond. They would seem more of a flight risk than moms and babies."
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Houston and Duara from Tempe.