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Why is ICE Releasing Hundreds of Women and Children from Family Detention Centers?

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Children at the San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship Monday afternoon. - ALEX ZIELINSKI
  • Alex Zielinski
  • Children at the San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship Monday afternoon.
Nobody seems to know exactly why hundreds of asylum-seeking women and children from Central America were taken out of two South Texas detention centers, put on buses, and then dropped off in San Antonio starting this weekend.

According to volunteers with Raices, a San Antonio legal-aid nonprofit that represents refugees, buses of largely Central American women and children started arriving Saturday evening, with little warning. Raices sent a call for help through a local listserv for immigrant rights nonprofits and attorneys across San Antonio. By Sunday, Raices' refugee shelter had filled up, and families were being shuttled to the San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship church. As of Monday morning, the organization said that nearly 500 migrant women and children had been dropped off in San Antonio.

Sleeping in pews and on donated mattresses and wearing donated clothing, the hundred or so women and children at the the Mennonite church waited for relatives to pay for plane tickets or bus rides — or just pick them up.

Not everyone had someone to call. A few kids still wore their detention-issued ID badges, and many of their mothers wore tight ankle monitors that allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to track their movement (to make sure they eventually would show up for their immigration court hearings). Volunteers said they heard ICE planned to drop off at least two more busloads of people this evening, meaning hundreds more asylum-seeking women and children could arrive in town by Tuesday.

It's hard to pinpoint what prompted this mass evacuation. “We can only hope this is a sign that the Obama Administration is finally deciding to end this failed experiment in family detention,” said Jonathan Ryan, Raices director, in a press release.

Raices says the families arriving in San Antonio come from two South Texas detention centers run by private prison giants that have seen profits soar in recent years as the feds have steadily increased how many immigrants they detain. While so-called "family detention" of immigrants has been challenged in court, earlier this year Texas made the surprise move of crafting new licensing rules so the detention facilities could be labeled "child care" centers – a move that could have ostensibly kept the detention centers open as advocates sue to try to close them.

Mental health advocates who have toured the family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes claimed they saw children losing weight, shedding hair and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression while in lockup. Some of the attorneys and advocates who work at the sites claim health care is so shoddy that children often have to be hospitalized once released.

Dozens of kids who were dropped off over the weekend were suffering from serious, untreated flu symptoms — and a couple of women were sent immediately to a local hospital with serious sinus infections. Many of the children devoured the donated food served at the local Mennonite church "like they hadn't eaten in a long time," according to one volunteer.

ICE meanwhile assures us the releases have nothing to do with the Friday court ruling that blocked state officials from licensing the detention centers. In a prepared statement Monday, ICE downplayed the releases, saying they were "scheduled as part of normal operations and not in response to the court ruling." The agency says it's still reviewing the court's ruling on licensing the family detention centers, but insists its detention activities "continue without interruption at this time."

A spokesman for the Geo Group, which operates the Karnes detention center, tells us that operations at the facility remain "unaffected" by the court's ruling.

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