The separation of children from their parents is no longer happening, but the Trump administration is still pursuing its policy of not releasing asylum seekers after they have been assessed.

President Donald Trump speaks about immigration alongside family members affected by crime committed by undocumented immigrants, at the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex.
President Donald Trump speaks about immigration alongside family members affected by crime committed by undocumented immigrants, at the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex. (AP)

The Trump administration is calling for the expanded use of family detention for immigrant parents and children who are stopped along the US-Mexico border, a move decried by advocates as a cruel and ineffective attempt to deter families from coming to the United States.

Immigration authorities on Friday issued a notice that they may seek up to 15,000 beds to detain families. The Justice Department has also asked a federal court in California to allow children to be detained longer and in facilities that don't require state licensing while they await immigration court proceedings.

"The current situation is untenable," August Flentje, special counsel to the assistant attorney general, wrote in court filings seeking to change a longstanding court settlement that governs the detention of immigrant children. The more constrained the Homeland Security Department is in detaining families together during immigration proceedings, "the more likely it is that families will attempt illegal border crossing."

The proposed expansion comes days after a public outcry moved the administration to cease the practice of separating children from their migrant parents on the border. More than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents since Homeland Security announced a plan in April to prosecute all immigrants caught on the border.

US President Donald Trump hit back on Friday when he met parents of victims killed by undocumented immigrants.

"You hear the other side, you never hear this side," said Trump, standing with a dozen of what he calls the "angel families" who lost loved ones at the hands of people in the country illegally. He focused on the fact that young migrants separated from parents are likely to be reunited, unlike the victims of murders.

"These are the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones. The word 'permanently' being the word that you have to think about. Permanently – they're not separated for a day or two days, these are permanently separated because they were killed by criminal illegal aliens."

Giving further ammunition to Trump and his supporters was the fact that a photograph of Honduran toddler pictured sobbing in a pink jacket before US President Donald Trump on an upcoming cover of Time magazine was not separated from her mother at the US border, according to a man who says he is the girl's father.

The powerful original photograph, taken at the scene of a border detention by Getty Images photographer John Moore, became one of the iconic images in the flurry of media coverage about the separation of families by the Trump administration.

Dozens of newspapers and magazines around the globe published the picture, swelling the tide of outrage that pushed Trump to back down on Wednesday and say families would no longer be separated.

It emerged that the mother had put the girl down for a few minutes to allow immigration officials to search her when the photograph was taken.

"My daughter has become a symbol of the ... separation of children at the US border. She may have even touched President Trump's heart," Denis Valera told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Valera said the little girl and her mother, Sandra Sanchez, have been detained together in the Texas border town of McAllen, where Sanchez has applied for asylum, and they were not separated after being detained near the border.

“It’s shameful that dems and the media exploited this photo of a little girl to push their agenda,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Saunders tweeted. “She was not separated from her mom. The separation here is from the facts.”

According to the Washington Post, the the Department of Immigration, Customs and Enforcement had previously deported Sanchez to Honduras in July 2013.

No solution

In all, about 9,000 immigrants travelling in family groups have been caught on the border in each of the last three months, according to federal authorities.

Immigrant advocates contend detention is no place for children and insist there are other alternatives to ensure they and their parents attend immigration court hearings, such as ankle bracelets or community-based programmes. The federal court ruled several years ago that children must be released as quickly as possible from family detention.

"It is definitely not a solution under any circumstances," said Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services at the RAICES advocacy group in Texas. "At no point should a child be incarcerated, and children need to be with their parents."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement currently has three family detention facilities – a 100-bed center opened in Pennsylvania in 2001 and two much larger facilities opened in Texas in 2014. Only the Pennsylvania facility can house men, and all of the detainees at the Texas centres are women with children.

In Dilley, Texas, a facility was built on a remote site that was once an old oil workers' encampment. It includes collections of cottages built around playgrounds. The other Texas centre, in Karnes City, is ringed by 15-foot fences and has security cameras monitoring movements. It also offers bilingual children's books in the library, classes, TVs and an artificial turf soccer field.

Inside the Karnes City centre, there are five or six beds to a room typically shared by a couple of families. Cinderblock walls are painted pastel colors, said Govindaiah, who added that the facilities are run by private prison operators, not humanitarian organisations, as is the case with shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children.

Few weeks

Currently, most families spend up to a few weeks in the facilities and are released once they pass an initial asylum screening. They are then given a date to appear before an immigration judge in the cities where they are headed to see if they qualify to stay in the country legally or will face deportation.

Those who do not pass initial screenings can seek additional review in a video conference with a judge, a process that lasts about six weeks.

But that's much shorter than the six months or a year many families were being held several years ago when the Obama administration began detaining mothers and children in a bid to stem a surge in arrivals on the border, Govindaiah said.

At the time, many were being held until their immigration cases – not just the initial screenings – were resolved.

Advocates then asked the federal court to enforce a decades-old settlement over the detention of immigrant children, and a judge ruled the children should be released as quickly as possible.

The settlement is seen by advocates as a way to ensure children are placed in age-appropriate facilities and for no longer than necessary. State licensing adds another layer of oversight.

"You will have children in facilities that are entirely inappropriate for children and are not meeting child welfare standards," said Michelle Brane, director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women's Refugee Commission. "They are trying to circumvent child welfare standards."

Viable alternatives

Brane said there is a viable alternative: supervised release to communities around the country. The federal Family Case Management Program – terminated under the Trump administration – compiled a perfect record of attendance by migrants at court hearings, and a 99 percent appearance record at immigration check-ins, according to a 2017 report by the Homeland Security inspector general.

Just two percent of participants – 23 out of 954 – were reported as absconders.

In Friday's notice, ICE said the family detention beds should be in state-licensed facilities and allow freedom of movement for detainees, and should preferably be located in states along the southwest border.

In addition to providing private showers and educational field trips for children, the centres should appear "child-friendly rather than penal in nature," the agency said.

Shares in private prison operators CoreCivic Inc and Geo Group rose on Friday as investors bet on increasing demand for their services after US authorities asked about available capacity for the detention of immigrant families.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies