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House Democrats say holding migrant families does not reflect 'our nation's values'

House Democrats say holding migrant families does not reflect 'our nation's values'
Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) confer at a forum on the detention of immigrant families Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Leading Democrats in Congress have called for an end to family detention. (Ken Cedeno / McClatchy/TNS)

The Obama administration, which has already seen its immigration policies stymied by conservative judges, is now facing increasing pressure from the left to release all women and children from immigration detention centers after a federal judge ruled against the controversial practice.

In yet another blow to the president's immigration policies, virtually all House Democrats told Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in a letter that "it is long past time to end family detention."

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In a letter released Friday, the representatives called on Johnson not to appeal U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee's ruling that hundreds of immigrant women and children -- many of whom fled violence in Central America -- should be freed from immigration holding facilities.

"In light of this recent federal court ruling, we urge you take all necessary and appropriate steps to bring the department's practices in line with the settlement agreement and the recent court ruling," the letter said.

The letter was signed by 178 of the House's 188 Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and several other members of the California delegation.

Friday's letter follows another letter that 136 House Democrats sent to Homeland Security this spring, in which they raised concerns about family detention and urged the agency to stop the practice.

In her ruling, Gee found federal officials to be in serious violation of an 18-year-old court settlement that put restrictions on the detention of migrant children, and called the conditions "deplorable."

Democrats voiced similar concerns in their letter, initiated by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose.

"The detained population is largely comprised of refugees fleeing violence and persecution, many of whom have serious medical and mental health needs that have been inadequately addressed in custody," the letter says.

The letter comes three days after a forum at Capitol Hill where Lofgren -- an outspoken critic of immigration family detention -- and other members of Congress heard from experts, former detainees and a former detention center employee. All described alarming conditions at all three of the country's immigrant family detention centers in Leesport, Pa., and Dilley and Karnes City in Texas.

The Democratic lawmakers wrote that "such detention is detrimental to mothers and children and not reflective of our nation's values."

Gee gave the Department of Homeland Security until Monday to respond to her ruling. The department on Thursday asked the judge to extend the deadline.

The letter also comes in the wake of other setbacks for the administration on immigration policy. A federal judge in Texas has put on hold two programs that would shield up to 5 million people from deportation; the executive actions creating the programs, known as DACA and DAPA, were challenged in court by Texas and 25 other states.

The administration is appealing to get the programs back on track, but so far an appellate court has declined to lift the judge's stay.

While conservative critics continue to attack DACA and DAPA, Friday's letter further galvanized immigrant rights activists who have blasted the administration for more than a year now for locking up immigrant women and children.

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Barbara Hines, a coordinator of the RAICES pro bono legal project at the family detention center in Karnes City, had seen the letter and said she was hopeful the Obama administration would comply with the judge's order.

Hines, a law professor and former co-director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas at Austin law school, traveled to Washington this week to address a congressional forum on family detention.

"It's not getting better," she said, describing a recent case in which an immigrant mother seeking release from detention in Texas was given a choice between an $8,500 bond she could not afford to pay or an ankle monitor, which she and others consider onerous and stigmatizing.

"Whether women are getting released or not, they're not getting released expeditiously and the children are getting held in nonlicensed facilities with no oversight. These prisons are not where children can be held legally," Hines said.

Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said he was heartened by the letter.

"It is a travesty, in addition to the thousand and one ways our immigration system is broken, that women and children, in addition to LGBT detainees, must remain for days at best, months at worst, behind bars as if they were common criminals," Cabrera said.

Meanwhile, anti-illegal-immigration activists condemned the move.

"Federal detention centers should not change policies in order to accommodate and facilitate law-breaking," said Robin Hvidston, executive director of We The People Rising, a Claremont-based immigration enforcement group.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have defended the detention centers as humane, stating they're equipped with health clinics, schools and other necessary services.

Last summer, an unprecedented number of women and children from Central America crossed the Southwest border. Some tried to slip in undetected while others surrendered to border enforcement officials and requested asylum, which is within their rights under U.S. and international laws.

In response, Johnson ordered immigration authorities to dramatically expand the number of detention beds for families. Currently, there are 3,700 beds available but not all are occupied.

Johnson said at the time that he wanted to send the message that if people came to the U.S. illegally, they would be detained and then sent home. Individuals held in detention are placed in an accelerated docket in immigration courts and can be removed from the country more quickly.

More than 68,000 people were apprehended along the border in fiscal year 2014, the 12-month period ended Sept. 30. They were detained while officials decided whether they had a right to stay. Initially, because there weren't appropriate facilities to house families, many were released with orders to appear at immigration offices throughout the country. Then the Obama administration opened new detention centers for mothers and children.

Many of the Central American families and children who crossed the border illegally last summer were fleeing devastating poverty and swelling gang violence. The exodus was also partly fueled by rumors in their home countries that unaccompanied children and single parents with at least one child would be allowed to stay.

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