WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will close a temporary family immigration detention center in rural New Mexico by the end of the year, The Associated Press has learned.
The government told some members of Congress about its plans Tuesday, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement later confirmed the closure to the AP. The administration indicated the facility was no longer needed because they are expanding jails elsewhere.
The Homeland Security Department opened the detention center at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico, in late June amid a crush of tens of thousands of Central American families caught crossing the border illegally. The facility had space to jail about 700 people facing deportation.
Since the facility was opened, a few hundred people have been deported to their home countries in Central America.
In the advisory sent to Congress, ICE officials said newly apprehended families have not been sent to the temporary jail since Nov. 7. The remaining roughly 450 people being held in Artesia, mostly mothers and young children, will be either released to await immigration court hearings or transferred to another family jail in Texas or Pennsylvania.
Phillip Burch, the mayor of Artesia, said in the past six weeks 448 Central American mothers and children have been released from the detention center and 28 were deported.
“I think we can cease calling it a detention center,” Burch said. During the first week of November, 77 people were released and six were deported, the mayor said, citing figures that he said he receives each week from ICE officials running the center. Last week, 80 people were released into the interior of the U.S., and five more were deported.
When the center was opened, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said it was intended to allow for the quick deportation of Central American immigrants coming into the U.S.
Nearly everyone apprehended at the border faces deportation. But for those who are not held by immigration authorities, the wait for a final decision from an immigration judge could take several years. The current backlog in the immigration court system run by the Justice Department is about 409,000 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University.
About 68,000 people traveling as families — mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — were apprehended at the Mexican border during the 2014 budget year. Since the start of the new budget year in October, 2,529 people traveling as families have been arrested.
In September an ICE official revealed at a confidential meeting at its Washington headquarters with immigration advocates that the government opened the jail in Artesia, and a subsequent facility in Texas, because tens of thousands of people released along the border failed to report back to ICE as ordered. The official, who was not identified on a recording of the meeting obtained by the AP, said 70 percent of immigrant families the Obama administration had released into the U.S. never showed up for follow-up appointments.
Another family detention center in Dilley, Texas, will open in December, according to the advisory to congress. Ultimately, the planned facility is expected to house about 2,000 immigrants.