Federal officials this week said they have started releasing undocumented immigrant families who have valid asylum claims, a group that currently stands at about 2,172.
Human rights activists and immigrants have long protested the living conditions inside some of the federal detention centers, the amount of time detainees are kept in custody, and the remoteness of the locations. The conditions are so poor, immigrant groups say, that they have prompted hunger strikes and suicides.
Richard Rocha, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said the agency was evaluating the cases of people inside all three of their family detention centers.
“Going forward, ICE will generally not detain mothers with children, absent a threat to public safety or national security, if they have received a positive finding for credible or reasonable fear,” Rocha said in a statement.
ICE said it will generally first release those who have been in custody the longest. But the agency said it has started to review the cases of families detained more than 90 days to see if they should continue to be detained while their immigration cases are pending.
Some heads of households, mostly mothers with some fathers, could be fitted with a GPS monitoring device, a condition of release that will be decided on a case-by-case basis.
No figures for how many people had been released so far were available Tuesday.
ICE said populations in three family detention centers in the U.S. — one in Karnes, Texas, another in Dilley, Texas, and a smaller facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania — are expected to initially drop. However, intake at the facilities will continue.
“Keep in mind, we have routinely released people for various reasons, including bonds, orders by immigration judges, or the exercise of prosecutorial discretion,” Rocha told BuzzFeed News.
Last year, a surge of Central American children, some of them accompanied by their parents, started showing up on the U.S. border, many of them fleeing violence and poverty back home.
Silky Shah, co-director of the Detention Watch Network, said the effort to release some families is a move in the right direction, but said it fell short of what advocates want: The closure of all family detention centers.
"The detention system is rife with human rights abuses, appalling medical care lapses, and glaring due process violations,” Shah said in a statement.
Shah also called the decision to fit mothers with GPS monitoring devices “unnecessary and dehumanizing.”
In June, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said prolonged incarceration of immigrant asylum seekers was an inefficient use of the government’s resources and called for the practice to be discontinued.
Johnson added that the Department of Homeland Security would offer “monetary bond or other condition of release” to detained families who successfully make a case for fear of persecution at home.
ICE said it will take into account a family’s ability to pay when setting a bond amount, as well as flight risk and public safety.
At the same time, those who don’t ask for relief will be deported promptly as part of the changes.
ICE also said it was appointing a federal advisory committee of outside experts to advise the agency on family detention centers.