Biden Takes Step to Roll Back Obama’s Migrant Detention Policy

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With hundreds of unaccompanied minors taken into custody on the southern border every day, the President Biden is taking his biggest step yet in rolling back the legacy of both of his predecessors, Donald Trump and Barack Obama. According to Department of Homeland Security draft plans reviewed by the Washington Post, the administration is in the process of turning migrant detention centers in south Texas into screening centers that would release migrant families into the United States within 72 hours of their arrival while they await removal proceedings.

The plan includes turning two dormitory-style facilities outside San Antonio with 2,400 beds and 839 beds, respectively, into centers that would screen migrant families, set up court dates, and release them to nonprofits that would help find transportation and lodging on the way to stay with friends or relatives before their court dates.

The reason for the change is partially spurred by the number of child migrants coming over the border this winter: On Thursday, Axios reported that last week Border Patrol referred 321 children to Health and Human Services Custody every day, which is up from an average of 203 unaccompanied minors earlier this year. (In an email to staff on Thursday, one senior ICE official wrote that, in 2021, unaccompanied minor and family arrivals “are expected to be the highest numbers observed in over 20 years.”) But Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — who worked together to expand migrant detention in 2014 during a major increase in family crossings — have also expressed a need for change. “Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately,” Biden tweeted last June. “This is pretty simple, and I can’t believe I have to say it: Families belong together.” On Thursday, Mayorkas said that “a detention center is not where a family belongs.”

Though they are significant, the administration’s sentiments and early steps are not a panacea. Axios reports that despite the policy shift, the number of migrants held by Border Patrol for longer than 72 hours has been rising almost every day. Mayorkas’s broad comment was provided to NBC News after reporters asked a direct question about whether or not he would commit to ending family detention. And most importantly, the administration is still enforcing the Trump policy known as Title 42, which cites the coronavirus as a reason to allow DHS to rapidly deport asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, without due process.

As the Biden administration does spot treatment on immigration policy by executive action, it does not appear that his sweeping reforms will see any light in the House for the next month. Politico reports that Democrats now plan to move the bill — which includes an eight-year path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants — through the House Judiciary committee in April.

Biden Takes Step to Undo Obama’s Migrant Detention Policy