Homeland Security Chief Opens Largest Immigration Detention Center in U.S.

by Veronica Coffin on December 15, 2014

Submitted by:  Veronica Coffin

Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, at a new detention facility in Dilley, Tex. on Monday. The center is specially designed to house migrant women and their children, from babies to teenagers, as their deportation cases move through the courts. Credit Jennifer Whitney for The New York Times

DILLEY, Texas — Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, came to this South Texas outpost on Monday to inaugurate a 50-acre detention center that will hold as many as 2,400 migrants caught crossing the Southwest border illegally, becoming the largest immigration detention facility in the country.

Though President Obama has offered work permits and protection from deportation to millions of unauthorized immigrants, he also ordered new policies to reinforce border security, hoping to prevent a new surge of illegal crossings. Mr. Johnson presided over the opening of the center in Dilley, 85 miles northeast of Laredo, to draw more attention to the border security pieces of the president’s executive actions, in response to the furor those actions caused.

The center is specially designed to house migrant women and their children, from babies to teenagers, as their deportation cases move through the courts.

Standing on a barren dirt roadway lined with cabins in a fenced-in compound, Mr. Johnson delivered a blunt message to migrants without legal papers considering a trip to the United States. “It will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back,” he said.

Republicans have assailed Mr. Obama’s measures, saying he overstepped his constitutional authorities with a sweeping program of deportation reprieves that they predict will attract another wave of migrants like the one in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas last summer.

Republican leaders have vowed to halt the programs when they take control of Congress next year. More than 20 states, led by Republican officials in Texas, have sued to stop the federal government from issuing the deportation reprieves.

But the administration’s huge expansion of family detention has drawn similarly angry criticism from advocates and lawyers on the other side, who argue that prolonged confinement is inappropriate for young children and mothers who pose no security risks. Until now, the largest permanent facility for migrant families was a center in Pennsylvania with about 100 beds.

“There are no conditions that could make the mass incarceration of families right,” said Stephen Manning, an immigration lawyer who led a team of volunteers representing migrant women detained this year.

Mr. Johnson said the administration is making “a sharp distinction between past and future,” with all migrants who came illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, becoming top priorities for deportation.

“This must be clear,” Mr. Johnson said, “Our borders are not open to illegal migration.”

He chastised Republicans in Congress who expressed their dismay at Mr. Obama’s executive actions by funding the Department of Homeland Security only through the end of February in a spending bill passed this weekend.

Mr. Johnson said the short-term funding created “further jeopardy of homeland security,” after lawmakers did not pass a supplemental border spending bill the president sought over the summer. Mr. Johnson said he diverted several hundred million dollars from disaster emergency funds to pay for a surge of resources to the border last summer.

“Everyone agrees that border security is important,” Mr. Johnson said. “Now it’s time to step up and partner with this department to help support that.”

He announced three new task forces, including one focused on the Southwest border, to better combine enforcement resources from different, sometimes competing or overlapping homeland security agencies.

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