Reports that the Biden administration is considering a plan to revive migrant family detentions drew outrage from members of the president’s own party on Tuesday, with Democratic lawmakers imploring the White House to reject the cruel practice that it largely shut down in late 2021.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who condemned the use of family detention under the Obama and Trump administrations, said in a statement that the policy “serves two purposes: lining the pockets of private prison companies and acting as a useless deterrent to prevent migrants from seeking their legal right to asylum.”
“This failed policy is callous and inhumane,” Grijalva added. “I urge President Biden to instead focus on the root causes of migration, expanding our nation’s asylum process to ensure that it is fair, humane, and orderly, and reunite the children forcibly separated under the previous administration.”
On Tuesday evening, Reps. Pramila Jayapal(D-Wash.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), and Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.)—respectively the chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—issued a joint statement calling on the Biden administration to dismiss “this wrongheaded approach.”
To bolster their case against family detention, the trio quoted Biden’s Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who declared in March 2021 that “a detention center is not where a family belongs.”
“We should not return to the failed policies of the past,” the lawmakers said. “There is no safe or humane way to detain families and children, and such detention does not serve as a deterrent to migration. We strongly urge the administration to reject this wrongheaded approach.”
The responses from Democratic lawmakers came as the White House refused to say whether family detention is under consideration as the administration prepares for the May lapse of Title 42, a Trump-era migrant expulsion policy that Biden has expanded despite claiming to oppose it.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dodged questions about family detention, calling reports on the administration’s internal policy discussions “rumors.”
“I’m not saying it’s being considered,” said Jean-Pierre, “and I’m not saying it is not. I’m saying that I’m not going to speak to rumors. There are rumors out there. Clearly, the Department of Homeland Security is working through ways on how to move forward once Title 42 is lifted. I’m just not going to get into speculations.”
Citing an unnamed source “working closely with the White House migrant policy team,” The New Republic‘s Pablo Manríquez reported Tuesday that White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice—who previously served as national security adviser under the Obama administration—”has been pushing for a reinstatement of family detention.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities that previously held migrant families who crossed into the U.S. via the southern border are now used to detain individuals. The Biden administration’s current policy allows families to enter the U.S. under surveillance as their cases proceed through the court system.
One unnamed official toldThe Guardian on Tuesday that if families are detained under new Biden administration policy, “they would be held for short periods of time, perhaps just a few days, and their cases expedited through immigration court.”
That the Biden administration would even consider returning to family detention infuriated immigrant rights groups, some of which took legal action against previous administrations over the policy.
“This shameful and immoral practice, which President Biden has rightly condemned and discontinued, inflicts lasting harm on children and families,” said Kica Matos, executive vice president of programs and strategy at the National Immigration Law Center. “It goes against the values we aspire to as a nation, while doing nothing to advance a humane and orderly immigration system.”
“Reviving family detention sets us back and sends a misguided message that criminalizing those seeking refuge is the right solution,” Matos argued. “It would be a grave error and a new low for an administration already down a backwards path of embracing failed deterrence policies at the border.”
Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, vowed that his organization will fight Biden “every step of the way” if he revives family detention.
“How we choose to respond to the children and families fleeing violence and persecution who come to our border seeking safety says a lot about who we are as a nation,” said Romero. “Putting children and their parents behind barbed wire to deter them from seeking safety should shock the conscience of every American who believes in fairness, safety, and basic human dignity for all people.”