On a rare tour for reporters and news cameras of the only family detention center of its kind -- a remote campus housing adult mothers and young children -- the acting head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement defended the facility as the Trump administration plans to lift the legal limits on detaining families.
“As you can see, the services here are very robust,” acting Director Matthew Albence told reporters from ABC News and other organizations. “I don't expect that it would take a whole lot of additional infrastructure changes to make this facility available for long-term use.”
ICE officials were eager to highlight the full range of amenities on Friday as they walked with a group of reporters through the facilities that sit on the outskirts of Dilley, a small south Texas town with a population of just over 4,000.
Earlier that day, the administration formalized a new policy to replace court-ordered standards which have regulated the detention of migrant children. Those guidelines included a 20-day cap on the amount of time a minor can be held in immigrant detention.
As first reported by ABC News, and later announced by Homeland Security chief Kevin McAleenan, the administration’s new policy roll-out would eliminate the 20-day limit.
“The new rule will ensure that children and families in the care of the government are temporarily housed in facilities that are appropriate for their well-being,” McAleenan said in announcing the change.
On the afternoon of the acting ICE director’s tour, mothers and their kids gather in the cafeteria for a choice of roast chicken with peas and carrots or hot dogs. Three hot meals a day are served here. Extra snacks are sold in a small convenience store that’s stocked with chips, candy and “cup of noodles” soup.
The women at Dilley -- it’s currently a female-only facility although that’s expected to change -- are given the option to work two hours a day for $1.50 an hour. The money is loaded into their personal accounts that can be used at the store or withdrawn when they’re released, an ICE official said.
A short walk from the commissary in a portable classroom, a group of pre-K students learning English sit on a colorful rug reciting the words to “Wheels on the Bus.” The curriculum is repeated every few weeks as children cycle out of the center. Officials plan to add more lessons and also expand the capability of the medical facilities as they prepare for longer-term care.
The head of the UNICEF USA, the United Nations’ aide fund for children in the U.S., strongly opposes the administration’s move and said any decision to detain children is dangerous.
“The proof is there,” UNICEF President Caryl Stern said in a statement. “Detained children experience long-lasting harm on their well-being, safety, and development.”
Two significant hurdles will continue to stall the administration’s crackdown: legal challenges from immigrant advocates who strongly oppose the prolonged detention of children and a lack of funding from Congress.
Albence said there’s room in the ICE budget detain people for longer at the Dilley facility, which he said has the space to hold as many as 2,400 people. The agency is not able to open more centers without the additional funding. There is another detention center in Pennsylvania, although it's considerably smaller with a capacity less than 600.
“We will utilize our existing family detention space as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Albence said.
More than 432,000 families have been arrested by border patrol since October 2018. The influx has overwhelmed the detention capacity of federal authorities. In a shift from the usual procedure of handing those detainees over to ICE, U.S. Border Patrol began releasing families with orders to appear in court. More than 130,000 families have been released since March before ever seeing an ICE detention center.
The administration’s new policy roll-out would eliminate the 20-day cap and create a new licensing measures to be overseen by ICE. Currently, the facilities are guided by state regulations, but a formal licensing process doesn’t exist.
A federal judge will review the new policy directive and Homeland Security officials have been gearing up for a court challenge from immigrant advocates.