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ICE taps nonprofit to house some migrant families in border-area hotels

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is planning to start housing some migrant families who cross the southern border without authorization in hotels in Texas and Arizona, the agency and a person familiar with the plan told CBS News.

In a statement, interim ICE director Tae Johnson said the agency had signed an $86.9 million contract with Endeavors, a Texas-based nonprofit, to provide short-term housing to migrant families who are not expelled by U.S. border officials under a Trump-era public health order. Johnson said the contract will provide more than 1,200 beds.

Endeavors is expected to start housing migrant parents and children in seven hotels in April, according to the person familiar with the plan. The nonprofit will offer families medical screenings, COVID-19 testing, meals, mental health services, on-site security, transportation planning assistance and access to lawyers, the person said.

The contract with Endeavors was publicly revealed Friday by ICE juvenile coordinator Deane Dougherty during a status conference in the federal court case over the landmark Flores Settlement Agreement, which governs the care of migrant minors in U.S. custody. Axios first reported details of the contract.

The contract comes as the Biden administration moves away from the long-term detention of migrant families, which child welfare experts have concluded is harmful for minors and their psychological well-being.

Since its inception, ICE has historically relied on family detention facilities to hold migrant parents and children in deportation proceedings. Family detention was expanded dramatically during the Obama administration after a sharp increase in the number of Central American families entering U.S. border custody.

The Trump administration inherited three family detention centers with the capacity to hold more than 3,300 parents and children. The administration sought to hold families indefinitely through a regulation, but the rule was ultimately blocked in federal court. 

ICE announced earlier this month that it was converting its family detention center in Pennsylvania into an adult-only facility and transitioning its two Texas detention facilities for migrant parents and children into short-term processing hubs designed to hold families for less than 72 hours.

The policy changes seem to reflect President Biden's campaign promise to explore alternatives to holding families and children in long-term ICE detention, which is civil, and not criminal, custody. The Biden administration has also said it will expand case management programs that connect families in deportation proceeding with lawyers, a process designed to ensure parents and children attend court appointments for their asylum cases.

While the Biden administration is, for now, discontinuing long-term family detention, it is not allowing all migrant families to seek asylum in the U.S. The administration has continued to cite a public health policy first invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020 to expel migrant adults and some families without allowing them to apply for U.S. refuge.

In February, U.S. border officials expelled nearly 8,000 migrant parents and children to Mexico or their countries of origin, citing the Trump-era order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), government data shows.

More than 11,000 parents and children traveling as families were allowed to continue their asylum and immigration proceedings in the U.S. last month — a three-fold increase from January. U.S. officials have said more parents and children were released in February because Mexican officials in the state of Tamaulipas stopped receiving Central American families with young children.  

The Biden administration has said it will continue the CDC-authorized policy, known as Title 42, for the foreseeable future. However, the American Civil Liberties Union could soon reactivate a lawsuit seeking to prevent the U.S. government from expelling migrant families. 

In his statement on Saturday, Johnson echoed similar statements issued by top Biden administration officials.

"Our border is not open," he said. "The majority of individuals continue to be expelled under the Centers for Disease Control's public health authority."

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