Roughly 200 Central Americans, mostly women and children, were released from family-detention centers since last Friday by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At North County Immigration we strongly feel this is a step in the right direction, but hope that it is just the beginning of an ongoing restructuring effort that the agency is making as to their policies regarding how long families seeking asylum can be detained.  The detainee releases follow a long campaign by human-rights groups, since last year’s spike in migration from Central America, to end the Department of Homeland Security’s policy of detaining families as a way to discourage migration.

The number of women and children crossing the border from Central America has dropped sharply this year, after about 120,000 crossed illegally in fiscal year 2014, as The Arizona Republic reported in the series “Pipeline of Children.”  Many immigrant-rights groups welcomed the releases of the mothers and children, but they called for closing the family-detention centers entirely.

Johnson also said DHS has:

• Begun reviewing cases of any families detained more than 90 days to see whether they should be released under supervision, with priority given to those held longest.

• Ended the practice of using “general deterrence” as a justification for detaining families.

• Taken steps to improve conditions at the centers, along with improving families’ access to legal counsel, social workers and medical care.

• Agreed to appoint a federal advisory committee of outside experts to advise ICE and DHS on family-detention issues.

As of Monday, ICE officials said that 2,101 people were being held at two family-detention facilities in Texas, and 71 at a family-detention center in Pennsylvania. Immigration attorneys working at the centers said that about 200 people had been released in recent days.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office released a study looking at how well Homeland Security and its Customs and Border Protection unit screened and provided care for detained unaccompanied children.

By law, Border Patrol agents and Customs officers turn detained children from countries other than Mexico or Canada over to the Department of Health and Human Services. Children from Mexico or Canada can be deported directly back to their countries. But, under a 2008 trafficking-victims law, agents first have to question children, and they are barred from sending back trafficking victims, those at risk of being trafficked, those with a credible fear of persecution, and those who can’t make an independent decision about returning.

But even though CBP’s own regulations say that children “under age 14 are presumed generally unable to make an independent decision,” the GAO said that CBP’s data and a random sample of case files showed that between 2009 and last year, CBP sent back 93% of Mexican unaccompanied children under 14 “without documenting the basis for decisions.” That amounted to more than 6,800 children, according to data in the GAO report.

The GAO report said that agents “made inconsistent screening decisions, had varying levels of awareness about … screening criteria, and did not consistently document the rationales for their decisions.”  Even when agents document them, their rationales can be troublesome. Earlier this year, the American Immigration Lawyers Association challenged separate incidents in which Border Patrol agents wrote that children told them they had crossed the border to look for work. In two separate cases, the child who allegedly said this was 3 years old. In another, the child was 11 days old.