With pressure building on the Obama administration to improve or abolish the detention of immigrant families, officials have agreed to release on bond at least half a dozen immigrant mothers, some of whom had sued the federal government for relief.
The women now eligible for bond had previous requests for release denied by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and had been issued deportation orders, their attorneys said.
The administration has been expanding family detention after an influx of more than 68,000 families across the southern border last year, mostly Central American families making the illegal crossing through Texas's Rio Grande Valley. It announced the upcoming releases Thursday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement now runs three family detention centers: in Berks, Pa.; and Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. As of this week, there were 88 adults and children held at Berks, 495 at Karnes City and 1,591 at Dilley, according to ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen.
Immigrant attorneys are in the midst of negotiating with the administration over the issue of family detention after a federal judge in California issued a preliminary ruling in their favor. The judge indicated that the federal government was failing to abide by an 18-year-old court settlement, Flores vs. Meese, which required the U.S. to release migrant children or house them in the "least restrictive environment."
Attorneys noted the decision announced Thursday to release the women and their children comes weeks after 136 Democratic members of Congress called on Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to stop confining families, and weeks before a congressional delegation is expected to visit the center in Karnes City.
"This move is purely political," Jonathan Ryan, executive director of San Antonio-based RAICES, said of Thursday's announcement. The group coordinates pro bono legal services for detained immigrants.
Instead of changing how ICE sets bonds for the mothers and children, he said, "the administration is only now releasing families, from Karnes and Karnes only, to avoid added scrutiny from the members of Congress."
"If this was a genuine policy change, we would be seeing families from the Berks and Dilley centers also being released," Ryan said. "ICE has shown that it is only concerned about its image. They do not care about the well-being of families, or about respecting their due-process rights."
Some of the women set to be released this week had sued the federal government, claiming it had retaliated against them after they staged a hunger strike in March.
The American Civil Liberties Union is also suing the Obama administration to end family detention. Earlier this year a federal judge in Washington ruled in its favor and ordered the administration to stop detaining most women and children who were caught crossing the border illegally whether or not they had applied for asylum in the U.S.
In response, ICE officials announced last month 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.
Christensen said the latest releases are part of that review process.