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DHS appeals order to release immigrant women and kids

Immigration officials continue to defend the use of family detention, even as Homeland Security moves forward on reforms that will shift the facilities toward short-term processing centers. 

On Friday, Justice Department lawyers filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court against an order by U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, who demanded the agency release hundreds of immigrant women and children held in detention centers before an October 23 deadline. 

Gee's order came as part of a lawsuit, which argues that current use of family detention runs afoul of a 1997 agreement, made to settle a lawsuit over the treatment of a 15-year old Guatemalan girl. 

Known as the Flores agreement, the policy requires immigration officials to release a minor child from its custody within 72 hours to a parent or guardian, as long as detention is not required to ensure the child appears in immigration court, or for safety reasons. 

Immigration advocates argue that DHS broke that agreement by holding both accompanied and unaccompanied minors in extended custody at detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania. 

Justice Department lawyers countered that the government had not violated the agreement because it only covers unaccompanied children. 

Gee blasted the agency's decision to hold immigrant families and unaccompanied minors without bonds, writing that it was "astonishing" that the agency had "enacted a policy requiring such expensive infrastructure without more evidence to show that it would be compliant with an agreement that has been in effect for nearly 20 years."

Gee also rejected the government's argument that last summer's influx of thousands of unaccompanied minors and immigrant families required the government to pursue prolonged detention. Instead, she noted where the original Flores agreement gave the government the flexibility to shift unaccompanied minors to licensed programs. 

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DHS, she said "routinely failed to proceed as expeditiously as possible to place accompanied minors, and in some instances, may still be unnecessarily dragging their feet now." 

She also said that claims that reverting to the Flores agreement "could heighten the risk of another surge in illegal migration across the Southwest border by Central American families," were "speculative at best, and, at worse fear-mongering." 

Gee gave the agency until October to release at least 1,400 parents and children held at the three facilities, including one in Dilley, Texas, which was opened in December 2014. 

Unlike other court challenges to Homeland Security policies, the lawyers did not ask for an emergency stay of the judge's ruling. Instead, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a public statement saying that the Department was complying with Gee's orders. 

"We disagree with portions of the legal reasoning in the decision and have filed a notice of appeal preserving our ability to challenge those portions," Johnson said. "But we remain committed to reforming our family residential center policies, as we have been doing for the past several months." 

DHS will continue "aggressive enforcement of the nation's immigration laws," while continuing "to expedite, to the greatest extent possible, the removal of those who are not eligible for relief under our laws," Johnson said.

"With these reforms, the detention of families is becoming short-term in most cases," he said. Family detention centers would be shifted to what he called "processing centers," where immigrants could be interviewed and released after asserting credible or reasonable fear of persecution claims, "under conditions designed to ensure they will appear in immigration court for their case." 

This statement reiterated claims he made in June, when he visited the family detention center in Dilley, Texas. 

Federal officials have already faced one other challenge to family detention in federal court. 

In February, a federal judge in Washington D.C. issued an preliminary injunction requiring DHS officials to release immigrant women and children because he found that DHS had failed to follow the Flores agreement by issuing a blanket no-release policy as part of the administration's "aggressive deterrence." 

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However, in June the court, convinced by the administration's new policy changes, decided to administratively close the case. 

Advocates could reopen the case if they find that DHS has failed to release the women and children in its custody. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Charles Reed/ICE

Residents walk through common campus area at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.