By Josh Gerstein
January 6, 2016
A Justice Department appeals panel has halted the deportation of four immigrant families detained in a sweep the Obama administration launched over the weekend aimed at returning families who crossed the southern U.S. border during a recent surge of illegal migration from Central America, attorneys involved said Wednesday.
The Board of Immigration Appeals granted stays of deportation Tuesday to four families detained over the weekend as part of the controversial operation, according to the CARA Family Detention Project, a joint effort of several immigrant rights groups.
A spokeswoman for the Board of Immigration Appeals, which is part of the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, said she could not confirm the stays without more details on the individuals involved. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement Monday that none of the 121 individuals detained in the first round of arrests had appeals pending in the immigration courts or the federal court system.
One attorney handling the cases, Melissa Crow of the American Immigration Council, said 12 people were covered by the stays issued Tuesday. Their asylum claims had been denied by DHS officials and they had not filed appeals until Tuesday.
“For the most part, they didn’t understand that they had appeal rights and many of them didn’t understand what went on at their initial hearings,” Crow said in an interview. “Once we learned more about their cases ... we filed stay requests and appeals because we believe they had legitimate claims for protection.”
Immigrant rights groups, Democratic presidential candidates and some members of Congress have criticized the sweeps. Some advocates have gone so far as to compare President Barack Obama to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has railed against illegal immigration.
“Our interviews revealed that these families have bona fide asylum claims, but were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present them at their hearings in immigration court,” CARA’s Katie Shepherd added in a statement. “It’s beyond shameful that these families, who risked everything to seek protection in the United States, were being forcibly returned to the violence and turmoil they fled in Central America.”
Two of the groups involved in obtaining the stays, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Forum, wrote to Johnson Wednesday asking for an immediate meeting to discuss the administration's strategy and tactics the organizations have blasted as inhumane.
It’s unclear whether any of the families picked up over the weekend, who hail from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, have actually been deported. Some or all of them appear to have been taken to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers to await expulsion from the U.S. Crow said she believes some of the families being held in Dilley, Texas, were set for deportation Wednesday.
It is also uncertain how long the stays will last and whether they have the potential to stymie the effort to deport families viewed by the Obama administration as an enforcement priority because they crossed the border in recent years. Officials have pointed to a recent spike in migration from the Central American countries and expressed concern that, without some deportations, more immigrant families and unaccompanied children will be encouraged to make the dangerous trek.
Asked whether any litigation could be brought to try to halt the deportation efforts more broadly, rather than or in addition to litigating individual cases, Crow said, “We are exploring a lot of possible avenues at the moment.”
The Board of Immigration Appeals is part of a quasijudicial system within the executive branch that handles immigration matters. It receives appeals from decisions of immigration judges and some DHS officials. Usually, a single member of the BIA acts on behalf of the board.
In a related development, Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) released an email Wednesday showing the Department of Health and Human Services has activated facilities in Florida and Colorado to hold unaccompanied minors who cross the border and is considering setting up facilities at six military bases. The bases set to be visited this week are Gunter Annex at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida; Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota; Naval Support Activity Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts; and Travis Air Force Base, California.
The email Roby released said no final decision has been made about which, if any, of the six bases would be used to house child migrants.
“A military base is no place to house illegal immigrant children. Bases like Maxwell are engaged in real military activities training, education, cyber warfare — many times in classified settings that are very sensitive. Their mission does not need to be distracted by housing, feeding and securing hundreds of detainees,” Roby said in a statement. “Housing illegal immigrant children at an active military base like Maxwell-Gunter is a terrible idea. We shut it down the first time and we are working every angle to shut it down again.”
An HHS spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that her agency is looking at military sites for temporary use to house unaccompanied children taken into custody crossing the border.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com