A majority of House Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson demanding an end to family detention of immigrants.
The letter, signed by 136 House Democrats, charged that Johnson "has not fully grasped the serious harm being inflicted upon mothers and children" held in jail-like family detention centers that are "not reflective of our values as a nation."
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this story said 126 House Democrats signed the letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. It was signed by 136 House Democrats.
"We believe the only solution to this problem is to end the use of family detention," the letter said. "Children require special protections and should not be placed in jail-like settings." The signers included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
Officials increased family detention last summer, opening several new centers capable of housing thousands after an influx of more than 68,000 families, many of whom crossed the southern border into Texas after traveling north from Central America.
There are now three family detention centers nationwide, one in Pennsylvania, two in Texas.
As of this week, the Berks, Pa., facility housed 93 people (42 families) while the one in Karnes City, Texas, housed 506 (230 families) and the one in Dilley, Texas, housed 766 (353 families), according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement records.
Homeland Security officials have said immigrant families are held in safe facilities with access to lawyers and medical care, and that holding mothers and children behind bars while their immigration cases are pending serves as a deterrent to would-be migrants.
Immigrant advocates have complained of insufficient medical care and alleged that sexual assaults have occurred at family detention centers; earlier this year, they persuaded a federal judge in Washington to bar federal officials from detaining mothers and children as a deterrent.
"We cannot continue to hear reports of serious harm to children in custody and do nothing about it," Wednesday's letter said. "Detaining mothers and children in jail-like settings is not the answer. We have an opportunity to do the right thing and are confident that DHS has the capacity to honor our nation's long-standing commitment both to the protection and well-being of refugee families and to law enforcement and public safety."
Two from California -- Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of Downey and Zoe Lofgren of San Jose -- were behnd Wednesday's letter, along with Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. The three Democrats have been pushing the Obama administration in recent weeks to end family detention.
Last week, the trio held a briefing on Capitol Hill with an immigrant mother who had been held in detention. Lofgren said Syrian refugees who had fled to Jordan are held under better conditions than immigrant women and children detained in the U.S.
Justice Department lawyers have been negotiating the terms of family detention with immigrant rights advocates after a federal judge in California issued a preliminary ruling April 24 that the current method of detaining families violates an 18-year-old court settlement laying out conditions for how immigrant children can be held.
This month, Homeland Security officials ordered a review of family detention with the goal of improving policies and conditions.
Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that for immigrants awaiting court decisions, family detention centers are a "humane alternative for maintaining family unity."
"Family residential centers are one of many tools used to address the growth in apprehensions of parents and children at our southern border," Christensen said.