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Hundreds Of Detained Immigrant Families Are Due For Release

Today is the deadline for the federal government to begin releasing hundreds of immigrant children and their parents from detention. Advocates believe a recent decision by the Department of Human Services in Pennsylvania to potentially revoke the license for one of the facilities holding the immigrant families could speed up the process.

The date to start releasing families was set by U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee back in August, when she ruled the government must come into compliance with a 1997 class action agreement establishing standards for detaining children. In a blistering opinion, she chided the federal government for depicting "rosy conditions" in the centers. She said children were being held in unlicensed facilities, which violated the terms of the 18-year-old agreement.

The federal government escalated its use of family detention after tens of thousands of Central American children and their parents were intercepted as they crossed the U.S.-Mexican border, fleeing violence in their home countries, in the summer in 2014. Thousands of children accompanied by their parents were held in detention while they waited for their asylum cases to be heard.

There are only two other facilities that currently hold immigrant families. Both are in Texas. With the center in Pennsylvania, they hold altogether some 2,075 children and adults. Only the Pennsylvania location, the Berks County Residential Facility, was licensed by the state, so it could mount the best case for being in compliance with the class action agreement. The federal government had then started transferring immigrants detained in the Texas facilities to Berks.

But that option may soon be closed to the federal government. On Thursday, Theodore Dallas, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS), sent a letter to the director of the Berks Center, informing her that the license would be revoked in February if the center continued to detain immigrant children. In the letter—a copy of which was furnished to NPR—Dallas pointed out that Berks was originally licensed to hold delinquent children, not immigrant children and their parents. If the center did not change the population it was serving, Dallas wrote, the state would revoke its license in February 2016.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is currently reviewing the state's correspondence and will determine the appropriate next steps," Sarah Maxwell, an ICE spokesperson, said in a statement.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the government would comply with Judge Gee's orders, but would be appealing aspects of her opinion to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Carol Anne Donohoe, an immigration attorney who has represented several detainees at Berks, applauded the move by Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services. "[The government] has put Berks forth as the shining, perfect beacon of family detention," she told NPR. "But now the state is saying it shouldn't be licensed. My hope is that this leads to the end of family detention and the release of these families."

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Alexandra Starr