U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) releases hundreds of women and children from detention centers. The move is part of policy changes recently announced by Obama administration immigration officials. Cyndi Whitmore, volunteer with the Phoenix Restoration Project and Bob Ortega, reporter for the Arizona Republic talk about the policy changes.
JOSE CARDENAS: ICE releases hundreds of undocumented immigrants from detention centers. This all due to policy changes recently announced by the Obama administration immigration officials. Here to talk about this is Cindy Whitmore, volunteer with The Phoenix Restoration Project, and Bob Ortega, senior reporter with "The Arizona Republic," covering the border. Thank you both for joining us on "Horizonte." Bob, let's start with you. What are the changes that we're talking about?
BOB ORTEGA: Well, there's some that are very recent that were just announced this week. Those include no longer detaining families as a measure to try to discourage other immigrants from coming up from Central America. So they had been holding families, purely as a measure to try to discourage other immigrants from coming. Now, they're saying they're not going to do that anymore.
JOSE CARDENAS: The numbers are down. Do you think there's any connection between the two?
BOB ORTEGA: No. It's very clear that the numbers are down but I think the reason the numbers are down, and they're down by 65% from a year ago, is because Mexico is intercepting and turning around a lot of these families and children before they ever make it to the U.S. border and the people, the same numbers of families are still fleeing Central America and what we're seeing right now is an increase in people from Central America rather than Mexico.
JOSE CARDENAS: So the changes are to make it easier for these families to be released, pending consideration of their claims for asylum?
BOB ORTEGA: So also they're supposedly going to be lowering the amount of bond that the families have to post to be able to get out and they are going to be reviewing and are already reviewing the cases of those people who have held for 90 days or more to release them first and supposedly only those who either for criminal reasons or because they pose a threat to national security will be held which obviously would be a very tiny or negligible portion of these people.
JOSE CARDENAS: Cindy, the suggestion is that immigration officials are responding in part to pressures from groups like yours about what's been going on. Nevertheless, I think your group has mixed feelings about what we're seeing in this change of policy.
CINDY WHITMORE: That's true. First, I would like to say I think a lot of this change is really coming from advocacy that women in the detention centers were doing for themselves with the hunger strikes. I think that's what really got the attention of lawmakers who put pressure on ICE and any credit for this change should go to those women who fought to get their children here and are continuing to fight for them. We do have some concerns. You know -- this shift sounds really great on paper but what we want to know is what is it going to mean out in the real world, where these women are living, trying to get out of detention? It's fine to say okay you're now eligible for a bond hearing but if the bond is set too high, that your family can't pay it, then you're still in the same situation.
JOSE CARDENAS: As a practical matter, is there any bond that could be set, that people could reasonably pay? These people come by the time they get here, they don't have much.
CINDY WHITMORE: By the time people arrive here they're pretty destitute, anything that they have, all resources that they have were usually used just getting here. So sometimes, there are family members here who are able to raise the bond and obtain their release but, you know, more often, families are forced to use these bond companies that are really very predatory.
JOSE CARDENAS: So it's still a problem. So Bob, among the other things mentioned in your article -- and this wouldn't necessarily be a change in policy but maybe following policy with respect to interviewing, for example, children under a certain age and how that's supposed to be handled.
BOB ORTEGA: It's a somewhat separate issue. The first set of policies that we were talking about really have to do with how long families were held in detention and under what circumstances they're released. The other issue here is when we're talking about these families, we're talking about people who are seeking asylum, who are fleeing danger in their own country, people who may be at risk of being trafficked. So one of the things that happens at the border is that border patrol agents and customs and border protection officers are supposed to conduct interviews with in particular children under 14 who may be at risk of being trafficked or who may be in danger.
JOSE CARDENAS: And they didn't seem to be doing that.
BOB ORTEGA: And what we're seeing now, the general accounting office just came out with a report saying that when it came to Mexican children in particular, that their review shows that 93% of the time, these interviews were not being conducted and documented properly and that thousands of these children over the last five years have been sent to Mexico in violation of our own trafficking laws.
JOSE CARDENAS: And they gave some examples of what could only be described as cursory and in many respects unbelievable responses to questions that supposedly were being used.
BOB ORTEGA: So -- there's a set of questions that the agents are supposed to ask and most importantly they're supposed to ask questions that determine whether there's a credible fear. The other thing that happens is that generally, agents when they are recording answers seem to be recording answers that really are not -- I mean, you can't understand how they could possibly get this. For example, there are cases in which agents have interviewed children who said oh, I came across to work, according to the agent's notes, children who are three years old. There was one case documented by last summer of a child who was 11 days old who allegedly told the border patrol agent that he was coming across looking for work.
JOSE CARDENAS: So that's a problem. We're almost out of time, Cindy. But what do you want to see by way of further changes? What can be done that would be meaningful?
CINDY WHITMORE Well, I think that we need to really think hard about, you know, placing people who are following our legal process to request asylum, which is presenting themselves in this country and making an asylum claim.
JOSE CARDENAS: So the solution would be to not detain them.
CINDY WHITMORE: Not detain them, not put ankle monitoring devices on them. They're following a legal process. There's no reason to place them into prisons or to treat them.
JOSE CARDENAS: So your group will continue to press for that?
CINDY WHITMORE: Absolutely.
JOSE CARDENAS: I'm sorry but we're out of time. Thank you both for joining us this evening.
Cyndi Whitmore:Phoenix Restoration Project Volunteer;Bob Ortega:Arizona Republic Reporter