Federal immigration officials, facing a judge's pending decision on the legality of the detention centers they use to house women and children, announced an intermediary step toward improving the conditions for its detainees.
Nothing will change right away. Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will appoint an in-house official to review conditions at the detention centers, the same three centers in Texas and Pennsylvania that the government is defending in court.
Immigrant rights advocates, who have sued to end the detention of families, decried the move announced Wednesday as insufficient.
"The only satisfactory step would be for the panel to recommend ending family detention immediately," said Andrea Cristina Mercado of the group We Belong Together. "I don't see anything short of that really being sufficient."
Once, parents and children would spend just weeks at a detention facility before being released to family members.
But, unprepared for thousands of parents with children who entered the country illegally last summer, most of them from Central America, immigration officials turned to facilities in New Mexico, Texas and Pennsylvania. The Texas facilities are run by private corporations, for which immigration groups say the government pays $267 per person per day.
Within the year, two lawsuits challenged the government's detention policies and the way by which ICE argues for detention or deportation, including the so-called deterrence policy: The government says that detaining families while their asylum claims are being processed will deter others from trying to cross the border.
U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg in Washington said the deterrence policy was "likely unlawful." The Obama administration asked him to reconsider. ICE said in a news release Wednesday that it would respect Boasberg's order but wanted it overturned.
A second lawsuit, filed in California, alleges that the facilities fail to meet the standard for handling children who cross the border illegally.
A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the actions announced Wednesday would affect the lawsuit.
ICE announced it would create a panel of experts in the fields of detention management, public health, children and family services, and mental health to advise Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on conditions at the centers.
Border agents caught about 152,000 people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border during the last six months, a dip of 28% from the same period a year earlier, something Johnson credits to the administration and Central American governments who battled the perception that those who made it into the U.S. would get to stay.
The number of unaccompanied minors at the border dropped more precipitously, down 45% from the year before.
Barbara Hines, a University of Texas law professor who litigated a case leading to the closure of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in 2009 for its "prison-like conditions," said the centers in use now are not materially different from the Hutto center, located in Taylor, Texas. President Obama closed the center.
"It's shocking he started this again," Hines said of the president. Homeland Security, she said, is "not going to be able to argue that there is a difference."
Joanne Lin of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, which is arguing against the deterrence policy, said the facilities' expanding capacities mean the government could hold more than 3,500 people by the end of the year.
"It's been a dramatic and rapid expansion," Lin said.
There are better, cheaper alternatives to detention, Lin said, with proven methods to ensure people show up to their immigration hearings. Among the options are ankle bracelets with GPS trackers, placement in juvenile facilities, separation of the parent and child -- something she argues against -- and working with a case manager.
"It's shocking and abhorrent that we have 2-year-old kids in prison," Mercado said. "What I think is so appalling about holding these women and children behind bars is that the data shows that asylum seekers, if they're released into the community, will come to their hearings."