WASHINGTON -- The government is doing what it can to improve conditions at family detention centers following recent complaints, but will continue detaining women and children who crossed the border illegally, Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday.
Family detentions have increased over the past year, in response to an influx of unaccompanied minors and mothers with children crossing the border illegally. After reports of abuse in facilities, DHS had initially sought to limit its use of family detention, turning to alternatives such as ankle bracelets instead. But in response to the current crisis, the agency is opening new family detention centers, to the great concern of immigration advocates.
An immigrant detention facility that opened earlier this year in Artesia, New Mexico, has been particularly controversial. Mothers being held there complained about cold temperatures, undercooked food their children wouldn't eat, and difficulties in presenting their case for why they should remain in the country rather than being deported. Attorneys said after visiting the facility that women were forced to speak about their experiences -- often including abuse and sexual assault -- in front of their children.
Speaking at an event hosted by NDN, a progressive group aligned with the Obama administration, Mayorkas addressed the criticism. He said that the department had responded quickly to concerns about Artesia and other facilities and would continue to do so, in order to fulfill the government's obligations to keep conditions at a high standard.
"If, in fact, we fall short, and quite frankly, the advocacy community has identified instances where we have not provided as we should for the care and needs of those families, then we will respond aggressively to address that and to solve that problem," he said. "I think we have done so with tremendous vigilance."
Mayorkas defended the government's decision to expand family detention, arguing that it was needed to handle the larger number of mothers and children coming to the country illegally. He also reiterated the administration's commitment to working quickly through cases of unauthorized immigration to ensure faster deportations. This, he said, would send a message that those who make it here illegally do not get a free pass to stay.
The deputy secretary also addressed concern over the number of undocumented immigrants, particularly children, who are going through removal proceedings without legal representation. He said the government is doing its best to provide attorneys through a partnership with AmeriCorps, and encouraging others to get involved on a pro bono basis.
In response to concerns, mostly voiced by conservatives, that terrorists from the Islamic State could be crossing the southern border illegally, Mayorkas said the government has no evidence of such plans, but that it will remain vigilant.
Although the situation is improving at the border, Mayorkas said, it is too soon to say the problem is resolved.
"It would be premature, at best, to declare victory, to say that the problem is behind us, because we don't know," he said. "What we have achieved is tremendous progress. ... If indeed we begin to observe an uptick in the number of unaccompanied children migrating to the southwest border, and specifically the Rio Grande Valley, we are prepared to address that uptick very swiftly."