Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that detention of immigrant families, once they have established eligibility for asylum, should end.
In an announcement that came after several Democrats visited family detention centers in Texas, Johnson said long-term detention of families with legitimate asylum claims is an inefficient use of resources.
"I have reached the conclusion that we must make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children," Johnson said in a statement. "In short, once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued."
The administration has been under heavy criticism for detaining families, mostly mothers and children, that fled Central America and Mexico amid violence in those countries and arrived by the tens of thousands on the U.S. border last summer.
The administration began detaining the families in an effort to curb the numerous arrivals that had overwhelmed Border Patrol facilities, forced openings of emergency shelters and led President Barack Obama to declare the arrivals a humanitarian situation.
Several Democratic House members had visited the family detention facilities in Texas on Monday and Tuesday and held a news conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill. House and Senate Democrats also had signed a letter calling for an end to the detentions and criticizing the administration the use of detention for the families.
The detention of families has emerged as an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. All three Democratic candidates have criticized the administration's practice of detaining families and children.
Legal battles over longstanding court orders on conditions for housing children, as well as on the administration's use of detention to deter other immigrants from attempting to come to the U.S. also have been ongoing and likely played a role in Wednesday's announcement.
A plan drafted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña and approved by Johnson calls for granting release on bond to families that have shown they have a reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries. Also ICE plans to set realistic bond amounts "taking into account ability to pay," risk of flight and public safety, Johnson said.
Johnson said he also has directed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to conduct timely interviews of immigrants on their fears of persecution, which would cut down on detention time. ongoing Immigrants will be told their rights and responsibilities and filled in about hearing schedules.
Despite those changes, Johnson said family detention centers will continue to be used for families that without a legitimate asylum claim or other legal relief to remain in the U.S.
"Our larger hope is that Central American families will heed our repeated calls to find a safet and lawful path for the migration of children to the United States ... I have personally seen enough to know that the path of illegal migration from Central America to our southern border is a dangerous path and it is not for children," Johnson said.