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In an attempt to prevent the detention of migrant families for weeks or months at a time, the Biden administration plans to release parents and children within 72 hours of their arrival in the United States, a new policy that is already being conducted along Texas. border.

The plan, confirmed Thursday by three homeland security officials, marks a significant departure from the treatment of migrant families under the Trump and Obama administrations, when children often exhibited symptoms of depression and trauma after spending long periods of time. in custody with their parents.

The decision to avoid prolonged detention of families comes as the number of arrivals at the southwest border in recent months has increased dramatically, which has posed a first test of President Biden’s commitment to creating a more humanitarian immigration.

Former President Donald J. Trump had promised to end what he called the “catch and release” policies of his predecessors and dramatically increased the number of asylum seekers who were being held in detention centers. detention, rather than being allowed to settle in the country as they waited for immigration courts to decide if they could stay.

Under the latest plan, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will only detain families for as long as needed to plan court dates, perform Covid-19 testing and ensure they are transferred to shelters , where volunteers and aid workers help plan their trip to already reach loved ones. in the countryside.

It was not clear when the plan would be fully deployed, according to officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

About 100 families a day would be treated and released from two existing family residential centers in Texas. Those who test positive for the coronavirus would remain in isolation at a border facility for 10 days.

As of Thursday, several dozen migrants traveling with families were being held at one facility in Karnes City, Texas, and more than 300 at another in Dilley, Texas. The two detention centers have a combined capacity of 3,200 people.

Immigrant rights advocates who were recently in contact with administration officials about the new treatment target said they welcomed it, but insisted families should not be detained for a period of time.

“The changes to Karnes and Dilley’s family prisons are, at best, reversible operational changes that reduce the harms of long-term detention and, at worst, a temporary measure to allay concerns about this controversial immigration policy.” , said Andrea Meza, director. family detention services at Raices, a nonprofit organization in Texas that represents immigrants. “Medical and mental health experts unilaterally agree that there is no safe way to detain a child.”

Erica Schommer, a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, called the new 72-hour policy a “positive” sign, but warned that any detention of children raised concerns because of research showing that children in such conditions suffered long term. pity.

“It’s a sign that the administration is hearing the message that people don’t want families detained,” she said. “However, they are still in detention centers, and I understand people will not be free to leave.”

The Family Residential Centers were erected under the Obama administration to house a wave of Central American families fleeing gang violence and poverty who made their way to the border – often guided by human smugglers – and have requested asylum.

Many of them were held for months until an immigration judge heard their asylum claim. But a California federal judge ruled that the extended detention violated an executive order, known as the Flores Agreement, which limited the length of government detention of children.

Migrant families, expecting a more relaxed border policy, began to rally on the Mexican side even before Mr Biden took office. His announcement that his administration was not planning to immediately allow large numbers of adult migrants into the country did not deter them.

To move families through the detention system more quickly and connect them with loved ones in the United States, the Biden administration is considering deploying health and human services officials to border patrol posts, the Biden administration said. week the secretary for internal security, Alejandro Mayorkas.

But the administration also continued to deport scores of people who entered the country without permission under a public health emergency law initially invoked by Mr. Trump. Immigration authorities have said they intend to keep these controls in place until there is a system to manage the influx of people at the border.

By law, the government cannot keep migrant children in border detention facilities for more than 72 hours; it must either transfer them to a shelter or release them, and the government is largely able to comply. The new policy mainly concerns the detention centers where many of them are then sent; under the Flores agreement, the government must not detain children in an institution for more than 20 days, and this time limit has often been exceeded in the past.

After U.S. border officials began allowing small numbers of migrant families to enter along the Texas border, thousands of people who had been turned away elsewhere, from as far away as Tijuana, flocked to cities. Mexican women near these border posts, in the hope of applying for asylum.

Some of those families have been allowed entry, according to US officials, due to a change in policy by a Mexican border state, Tamaulipas, which refuses to take families with young children to its shelters. The issue has been the subject of internal discussions between Mexican and US government officials.

The release of these families at bus stations in communities struggling with the pandemic has sparked backlash from conservatives and local leaders, who complain that some of the recent migrants to the United States have tested positive for the disease. coronavirus.

“The federal government has sole responsibility for testing, screening and quarantining illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have Covid,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement. “We will not help a program that makes our country a magnet for illegal immigration.”

Justin Long, a spokesperson for customs and border protection, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready to provide local leaders with funding for the tests. Mr Abbott’s office did not respond to questions as to whether he had requested such support.

Besides migrant families, there has also been a substantial increase in the number of children crossing the border without any adults accompanying them since Mr Biden took office.

About 7,700 of those children were being held in shelters this week, the Department of Health and Human Services said, filling nearly all available beds in the shelter system. More than 200 children have been placed in a temporary emergency facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas.

In addition to families and children seeking asylum who are allowed to enter the country in limited numbers, a growing number of other migrants are also trying to do so. In total, border officials arrested 4,500 people on the southwestern border on Wednesday, according to an internal security official, nearly double the some 2,400 migrants per day apprehended in January.

James dobbins contribution to reports.

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