The Department of Homeland Security says it is changing its family detention policies, but critics say the steps don't go far enough.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says Immigration and Customs Enforcement will begin releasing families now being held at ICE facilities who are "successful in stating a case of credible or reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries."
The families will have to post a monetary bond or other condition of release.
Johnson also says he is directing Citizenship and Immigration Services to conduct interviews to determine whether detainees have that credible fear of returning to their home countries "within a reasonable timeframe."
The government says nearly 70,000 "family units" were detained after crossing into the U.S. along the Southwest border during fiscal year 2014, a 361 percent increase from the previous year. Many are still being detained in immigration detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania.
A group of Democratic members of Congress who recently toured the facilities weren't impressed with DHS's moves. According to Huffington Post:
"Eight Democratic House members who visited family detention centers in Texas on Tuesday told reporters soon after Johnson's announcement that they appreciate the response, but don't think it goes far enough.
" 'I understand that DHS is making some initiatives to try to soften the situation in these two detention centers and others, but quite frankly, I don't care how much lipstick you put on it,' Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said at a press conference on Wednesday. 'The fact of the matter is that it is a prison for women and children.' "
The advocacy group United We Dream has similar reservations. In a statement it called the practice of "putting little kids in jail" outrageous.
"The reality is that the practice of family detention remains in place and United We Dream calls on DHS to end it immediately.
"Family detention is inhumane. It's been well documented that placing women and children in detention centers can have severe psychological effects and could be detrimental to a child's development."
On the other side of the immigration debate, there were cries that the administration was encouraging more Central American families to make the journey north. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., issued a statement saying the "ongoing surge" of Central American families and children arriving in the U.S. is a "crisis of President Obama's own making."
"The Obama Administration's failure to detain recent border crossers and those responsible for the surge is outrageous, especially in light of new information showing that the vast majority of unlawful immigrants and their children who are released into the U.S. and have removal orders never show up for their court date. By refusing to detain unlawful immigrants until their claims are proven legitimate, the Obama Administration is practically guaranteeing that they will disappear into our communities and never be removed from the United States."
The Border Patrol says that family apprehensions at the Southwest border are down 51 percent through May of the current fiscal year compared to the same period a year ago.