Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged Tuesday the Biden administration is considering a plan to reinstate immigration detention centers for migrant families, but he played down the proposal as one of several under discussion in anticipation of a potential spike in border crossings this spring.
“Great, good, bad, terrible,” he said. “Let us discuss them, and many will be left on the cutting-room floor.”
Mayorkas’s statements came a day after the New York Times and others reported the administration is debating whether to reverse its previous position — framed as a moral decision — that families should not be held in immigration custody. Biden officials have previously touted their moves to close or repurpose three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities for families as evidence of a commitment to a more humane approach at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But Homeland Security and the White House are rethinking that decision as they prepare to lift pandemic-related border restrictions May 11, according to four officials involved in the discussions. The pandemic measures, known as Title 42, have been used to rapidly expel more than 2 million migrants since March 2020, and DHS officials expect illegal border crossings — at record levels under Biden — will go higher once the pandemic measures end.
Immigrant advocacy groups who saw a hard-fought victory in Biden’s move to end family detention say they are incensed. But the administration’s reconsideration of family detention signals the extent to which Biden officials appear willing to absorb blowback from liberal Democrats to reduce illegal crossings and boost the president’s ratings on border issues.
One leading option under consideration would reopen the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, the largest of such facilities, according to two of the officials, who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations. Another administration official disputed that claim and said the Dilley facility, which holds single adults for ICE, was no longer being looked at.
That complex has capacity for about 2,500 parents and children, but ICE officials say it typically tops out at about 1,500 beds because the agency avoids housing men and teenage boys with unrelated women and small children.
That number of beds would accommodate only a small fraction of the migrant families who reach U.S. soil. Border authorities detained more than 560,000 migrants who crossed as part of a family group during fiscal 2022, data show.
Biden officials who favor the restart to family detention want to use the facilities to carry out fast-track deportations for families that lack valid protection claims, according to two officials familiar with the discussions. Those deportations, known as expedited removal, would be facilitated by a new enforcement rule proposed by the administration last month that would penalize asylum seekers who cross the border illegally or do not request safe refuge in other countries they pass through on their way to the U.S. border.
The restrictive measure can take effect after a public comment period and will be counterbalanced, Biden officials say, by new executive measures allowing tens of thousands more migrants to enter the country lawfully each month.
Immigrant advocacy groups and some Democratic lawmakers have panned Biden’s turn to tougher border enforcement, showing some of the political risks for Biden ahead of the 2024 election.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said detaining families is an ineffective way to discourage mass migration, and he urged the Biden administration to ramp up asylum processing.
“Family detention 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,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This failed policy is callous and inhumane.”
Biden was vice president and Mayorkas the second-ranking official at DHS in 2014 when the Obama administration responded to a sudden influx of Central American parents with children by sending them to what it called “family residential centers” run by ICE.
The facilities offered recreational and educational programming and allowed children to be housed with their parents. But child welfare experts warned the sites were detrimental to youngsters, and the federal judge who oversees the detention programs involving minors set 20 days as the maximum amount of time children should remain at the facilities.
Because it typically takes twice as long for the government to process migrants’ protection claims, families were often released before their cases could be decided. Officials in the Trump administration experimented with various detention measures when family migration levels reached record levels in 2019, eventually devising the “Remain in Mexico” program to make asylum seekers wait outside U.S. territory while their claims were processed.
“Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately,” Biden said in a 2020 tweet while campaigning for office and criticizing his opponent’s border policies.
Once in office, his administration phased out family detention in favor of electronic monitoring programs using GPS technology that allows migrant parents and children to leave government custody.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that DHS was “working through ways” to determine how to move forward after the lifting of Title 42, but she declined to say whether Biden had been briefed on any options to restart family detention.
“I’m not saying it’s being considered,” she told reporters at the White House news briefing. “And I’m not saying it is not. I’m saying that I’m not going to speak to rumors.”
She said Biden, who has faced congressional opposition to his plan to enact a comprehensive immigration package, intended to “use the tools that he has before him to make sure that we build an immigration system that is safe, orderly and humane.”
Asked if it is possible to create such a system while detaining migrant families, Jean-Pierre declined to answer directly. She was more pointed when speaking about President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, comparing Biden’s approach favorably to that of his predecessor.
“Trump tried to deport ‘dreamers,’” she said. “We went to court to protect them. Trump ripped babies from their mothers’ arms. We’re reuniting those children with their families.”
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.