The Trump administration is looking to significantly expand detention capabilities and break with existing policies implemented to keep asylum-seeking families together while their applications are pending, according to leaked documents.
John Lafferty, the Department of Homeland Security’s asylum chief, informed staffers during a closed-door town hall last month that officials had already secured an additional 20,000 beds for the purpose of detaining asylum seekers — a 500% increase from current capacity, according to notes from the meeting obtained by MSNBC.
The apparent expansion plans echo President Trump’s pledge to radically overhaul policies on how to deal with parents and children seeking asylum in the U.S. Under provisions proposed at the meeting, parents and children would be separated at the border, forcing fathers and mothers to either return to their home countries with their children or stay separated while their applications are pending.
It generally takes about six months before the DHS makes a decision on an asylum application.
Thousands of women and children have fled violence and sexual assault in their countries of origin, hoping to obtain asylum in the U.S.
A DHS spokesman wouldn’t outright confirm the MSNBC report, but claimed that the department is constantly exploring options to “discourage” immigrants from coming to the U.S. without documentation.
“The journey north is a dangerous one with too many situations where children — brought by parents, relatives or smugglers — are often exploited, abused or may even lose their lives,” the spokesman said in a statement to the Daily News. “With safety in mind, the Department of Homeland Security continually explores option that may discourage those from even beginning the journey.”
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
Immigrant experts ripped the apparent proposal as heartless.
“To physically remove a child and a mother is like waterboarding someone — it’s torture,” John Rodriguez, a San Diego-based immigration attorney, told The News. “It’s clearly inhumane, and it just lacks the compassion in the law that has always been there.”
Rodriguez, who has practiced law for nearly 20 years, speculated that the White House is fully aware of the callousness of the apparent DHS proposal, but implements it anyways to “win the battle.”
“Being an illegal immigrant is not illegal,” Rodriguez said. “Donald Trump is slowly poisoning our thinking.”
Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose district shares borders with Mexico, slammed the DHS’ move to expand detention capabilities as plain “wrong.”
“That type of thing is where we depart from border security and get into violating human rights,” Cuellar said.
According to notes from the February meeting, the DHS’ asylum division plans to allocate funds to open up new detention centers. While it wasn’t immediately clear who would oversee the new facilities, Lafferty suggested during the meeting that the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley could be an example to follow.
The Dilley facility is overseen by private prison corporation CoreCivic, which manages most detention centers in the country and have been the target of a slew of lawsuits alleging neglect and mistreatment of detainees.
“We got Dilley up and running very quickly,” Lafferty told staffers when asked about DHS’ ability to construct new facilities, according to notes.
DHS might also be looking to reopen a much maligned detention center in Raymondville, Texas, which was shuttered in 2015 amid mounting allegations of abuse and deteriorating conditions. Representatives for the private prison corporation overseeing the Raymondville site recently told Texas Monthly that a DHS subsidiary had “expressed interest” in the facility.
Meanwhile, Trump and his cabinet members have signaled interest in boosting the private prison industry, with attorney general Jeff Sessions last month rescinding a Justice Department memo signed last year that moved to roll back the country’s reliance on private prisons.
“The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired (the Bureau of Prisons’) ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” Sessions wrote in an order rolling back the Obama administration memo.