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Biden may revive detention of migrant families caught crossing the border illegally


The White House is considering whether to revive the practice of detaining migrant families caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. That would be a major reversal for an administration that had largely stopped family detention on humanitarian grounds. But the administration is weighing the idea as part of a broader crackdown at the border. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration for NPR. Joel, what do we know about these discussions?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Yeah, the administration is considering holding migrant families in detention if they're caught crossing the border illegally. That's according to a source familiar with the matter. The source stressed that no final decisions have been made and also that this is one of several options under consideration and that any family detention would be brief - clearly, you know, trying to distinguish this from the way that prior administrations have used family detention, particularly the Trump administration, which sought to hold families in detention for longer periods of time.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So let's go back for a moment. Why did the Biden administration stop family detention?

ROSE: Family detention is controversial because of the effect on children. Immigrant advocates and doctors say that even brief stays in detention can have serious effects on children's health. That's why there are strict rules around how long the government can hold migrant families in detention and under what conditions that are laid out in a long-running legal case known as the Flores Agreement. As a candidate, President Biden called for migrant families to be released from ICE detention during the pandemic, and his administration had been largely releasing migrant families into the U.S. instead of detaining them. But now it is considering bringing the practice back to detain families, at least for short periods of time, under the Flores Agreement, while deciding whether to release or deport them.

MARTÍNEZ: And that would be a pretty big shift. Why are they considering it now?

ROSE: Well, for several months, the administration has been pushing to tighten restrictions at the southern border. The White House is planning for the end of the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42, which allow immigration authorities to quickly expel migrants at the border. Those are currently set to end on May 11. And the Biden administration is very concerned about a possible jump in the number of border crossings at a time when it's already under pressure from Republicans who have criticized what they call Biden's open-border policies. The Biden administration has already announced a proposed rule that would sharply limit who can apply for asylum at the border. And now it's looking into other ways to discourage migrants from crossing illegally and deter them from making the dangerous journey through Mexico in the first place. And it's giving consideration to ideas like family detention that would have been hard to imagine even a few months ago.

MARTÍNEZ: So with the asylum limits proposal and now this, I can imagine that immigrant advocates have some thoughts.

ROSE: Yeah, they are appalled that this is even under discussion. They argue that ending family detention is one of the things that the Biden administration had gotten right on immigration. Advocates are concerned that bringing family detention back could have unintended consequences, might actually encourage more families to send their children over the border alone because unaccompanied minors are treated differently and not expelled from the U.S. These self-separations, as advocates call them, are already happening, but advocates worry they could happen more once these new policies go into effect.

And we should also note that there would be serious logistical challenges to getting family detention off the ground by May 11. Family detention centers are required to have things like classrooms and playgrounds. And the few facilities that were previously used for families have been converted to hold single adults now. So it would not be a simple matter to just, you know, turn them back into family detention centers.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. Joel, thanks.

ROSE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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