A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction halting the Obama administration's policy of locking up immigrant mothers and children applying for asylum in order to deter others from illegally crossing the border.
In a 40-page opinion issued Friday, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg in Washington said the government's policy of using deterrence as a reason to detain the immigrants instead of releasing them while their asylum claims were being processed was "likely unlawful."
Boasberg ordered federal officials to stop detaining asylum seekers "for the purpose of deterring future immigration to the United States, and from considering deterrence of such immigration as a factor" in their decisions until a final ruling is made on the policy.
"The incantation of the magic words 'national security' without further substantiation is simply not enough to justify significant deprivations of liberty," Boasberg wrote.
The injunction covers those held in family detention facilities since June, who have a "credible fear of persecution in their home country" and have been denied release, in part, because of the government's desire to deter future "mass migration."
It was not clear whether the injunction would require the release of hundreds of detainees being held in family detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas.
In a statement, officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that runs the centers, said they were reviewing the court's decision.
"ICE's family residential centers are used as an effective and humane alternative to maintain family unity as families go through immigration," the department said, adding that the centers "operate in an open environment," which includes access to medical care, playrooms and educational services.
"What this will hopefully mean is that the government will release people on their own recognizance or set reasonable bonds," said Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants' Rights Project, which brought the suit on behalf of the detainees.
"I hope the administration will use this as an opportunity to revisit their policy" of detaining immigrant mothers and children who have already been found to have a credible fear, a policy that amounts to "using them as pawns," Rabinovitz said.
A hearing is scheduled for March 6.
The Obama administration put the policy in place last summer in an attempt to deal with the unprecedented influx of women and unaccompanied children fleeing Central America.
More than 68,000 families were caught attempting to cross the Southwest border illegally in the fiscal year that ended in September, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Most came from Central America and crossed through the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
About the same number of unaccompanied youths, most from the same countries -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- crossed the border at the same time along the same routes.
There are three family immigration detention centers nationwide: one in Pennsylvania that houses up to 85 residents, and two that opened in Texas in recent months that can house 532 and 480 residents. One of the Texas facilities is expected to ultimately hold up to 2,400.
A combination of factors — including escalating gang violence, poverty and rumors about potential immigration relief — has prompted more people to head north.
The exodus has overwhelmed Homeland Security officials, who have vowed to speed up immigration hearings but have also struggled to house immigrant families and unaccompanied children. Officials have also faced scrutiny over unsanitary conditions in some detention centers and protests from locals who opposed efforts to put new centers in their communities.