In reversal, Biden considers detaining migrant families

President Biden
President Biden
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The Biden administration is considering detaining migrant families who cross into the U.S. without permission as it prepares to end COVID-19 restrictions at the border with Mexico, according to U.S. officials familiar with the discussions. That would be a major reversal from late 2021, when officials stopped holding families in detention facilities.

Homeland Security officials are working through how to manage an expected increase of migrants at the border once the pandemic restrictions imposed in 2020 are lifted in May. Detention is one of several ideas under discussion and nothing has been finalized, the officials said.

If families were detained, they would be held for short periods, perhaps just a few days, and their cases would be expedited through immigration court, one official said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations.


White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on “rumors” that the policy was under consideration. “I’m not saying that it is; I’m not saying that it’s not,” she said. She refused to say whether President Biden believed that detaining families was humane.

Under current policy, families who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border are released into the U.S. and told to appear in immigration court at a later date. At the height of the pandemic, few families were detained, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are now using those facilities to hold single adults who cross the border without permission.

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But the U.S. has increasingly moved to restrict migrants as it faces record numbers of people coming to the Mexico border to seek asylum, and is seeing some success at bringing down the number of migrants making the often deadly journey.

The suggestion to again detain families was met with disdain from immigrants’ advocates, who point to studies that show how detrimental detention can be for children and families. Many said they were surprised to hear of the possibility because they had been told families would no longer be detained.

“The Biden administration is seeking to find a balance that protects the rights of those fleeing persecution and violence and the desire to enhance the orderliness
of asylum processing,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the Immigration Hub. “Detaining families has no place in this quest. We implore the administration to reject this shameful, retrograde practice.”

As a candidate in 2020, Biden said in a tweet after reports that children, but not their parents, were being released: “Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately. This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: Families belong together.”


A new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows some support for changing the number of immigrants and asylum seekers allowed into the U.S. About 4 in 10 surveyed said the level of immigration and asylum seekers should be lowered, while about 2 in 10 said it should be higher. About a third wanted numbers to remain the same.

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Illegal border crossings plummeted after Biden announced Jan. 5 that Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans would be returned to Mexico if they crossed without permission. At the same time, the
administration announced that up to 30,000 people from those four countries could come per month if they applied online, arrived at an airport and had a financial sponsor.

The Border Patrol stopped migrants 128,410 times on the southern border in January, down 42% from December, the highest month on record. February numbers have not been released, but one official told the AP that migrants had been stopped about 130,000 times.

Last month, the administration said it would generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border without seeking protection in a country they passed through. The Trump administration’s effort to do the same never took effect because it was blocked in court.

But most such efforts have not included families with children, which are treated differently. But parents who fear detention sometimes send their children north alone, and the number of unaccompanied migrants is rising.

“I’m alarmed by news reports that the administration is considering reinstating family detention policies,” said Mississippi’s Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. “Not only are these policies cruel and harmful to children, but they don’t prevent families from traveling to the United States.”


The administration has the capacity to house about 3,000 people in two family detention centers in Texas.

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Both the Obama and Trump administrations detained families in those facilities until their immigration cases played out, though a court order prevents the government from holding children longer than 20 days. A third detention center in Pennsylvania was shut down a few months ago.

Jean-Pierre rejected criticism that Biden was reinstating some of the policies of former President Trump. Among other major changes to the immigration system, he severely curbed asylum and forcibly separated children from their parents at the border — a policy denounced worldwide as inhumane.

“A lot of people have compared what the president is doing, [as] either extending what Trump did or being very Trump-like,” said Jean-Pierre. “That is not what is happening here.”

On May 11, administration officials are ending the national emergency that was brought on by the pandemic. Because the border restrictions known as Title 42 are tied to the national emergency, the administration is planning to end them the same day.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a Republican-led effort to leave the restrictions in place, but it has removed oral arguments in the case from its calendar.


The majority of migrants who come to the United States seeking asylum do not receive it, according to data from the federal government. Only about 30% of them are deemed eligible under U.S. law, which narrowly defines who qualifies. Many people are seeking a better life and fleeing poverty and devastation in their home countries, but that doesn’t often mean they get to remain in the U.S.

The two Texas detention centers are in Karnes City and in Dilley. Families would likely be held again in Dilley, which was used to detain families during the Obama and Trump administrations. The New York Times first reported that officials were considering detaining families again.

Spagat reported from San Diego.