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Democratic lawmakers request information on reports of family separation in detention

Posted May 21, 2020 5:01 p.m. EDT

— House Democratic lawmakers urged the Trump administration in a letter Thursday to explain reported incidents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking migrant families in detention to choose between staying with their children or releasing them.

Advocates and immigration lawyers shared anecdotes of detained families distraught over their encounters with ICE last week, describing meetings between parents and ICE officers regarding whether their children would remain in custody with the parent or be turned over to a sponsor in the US.

"What's certain and consistent is that these choices were presented to our clients and that our clients walked away truly feeling that they were asked to say good bye to their children," said Shay Fluharty, director of Proyecto Dilley, an organization that provides legal services for families in detention.

Families detained in all three ICE detention facilities -- Berks in Pennsylvania, South Texas (Dilley), and Karnes County Family Residential Centers in Texas -- shared similar stories. Children at the facilities range from 1 year old to 17 years old, according to lawyers and advocates who provide legal assistance.

"The Administration must stop using this public health crisis as a means for implementing unlawful and inhumane immigration policies. In these extraordinary times, human suffering need not be compounded by locking up families or instilling fear in the hearts of migrant parents," read the letter, directed to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matt Albence.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, Immigration and Citizenship subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren and leadership from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus led the letter.

Attempts at separation detailed by parents are different from the widespread separation of families that occurred at the US-Mexico border in 2018. During that time, authorities separated many immigrant families soon after they'd crossed the border. In this case, advocates allege parents were presented the option of separation while in detention.

In a statement over the weekend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied instituting a binary choice or separating any parents from their children "pursuant to 'binary choice.'"

And in response to a tweet by Chelsea Clinton accusing the government of making families choose between detention or separation, Wolf said, "This story has already been debunked by ICE. Get smart before you peddle these false talking points."

But concerns among immigrant advocates and lawyers stem from previous proposals weighed by the Trump administration. The administration, for example, once considered giving detained immigrant families two options: remain detained together while their case works its way through the system or allow children to be eventually released from custody.

House Democrats raised alarm over last week's incidents, calling on the Department of Homeland Security to "immediately provide a detailed legal explanation for this new policy, and cease implementation until such explanation is provided to families in detention, counsel, and to Congress."

Thursday's letter from Democratic lawmakers also cites the so-called Flores agreement, which set nationwide policy for the detention and treatment of minors in immigration custody, and a recent court order requiring ICE to conduct individualized release assessments for children in ICE custody.

"Reports suggest that ICE has interpreted (US District Judge Dolly Gee's) order as grounds for approaching parents and asking them to choose between remaining in detention or releasing their children to suitable sponsors," the lawmakers wrote.

"Unfortunately, the agency's chaotic implementation of Judge Gee's order led advocates and families to believe that the Administration was moving forward with its long-contemplated 'binary choice' policy, which uses the threat of an illegal action—indefinite family detention—to force another immoral action—family separation," they add.

In its statement, ICE said the agency "has complied with the court's order to conduct parole reviews of minors, and did so utilizing a form developed to comply with an order from the same court three years ago."

Lawmakers gave the administration until May 28 to respond to their questions and provide clarity on the situation.

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