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Over one hundred leading immigration, civil rights, and human rights organizations called on the Department of Homeland Security, currently under the guidance of Acting Secretary Pekoske, to immediately halt the deportations of asylum-seeking parents and their children from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas in a new letter today.

The parents and their children, some as young as three-years-old, could be sent back to the countries from which they are seeking safety after the prior administration subjected them to unlawful and inhumane policies, such as the Third Country Asylum Transit Ban, during which these families were detained for up to 18 months and now face a return to harm’s way.  They could be deported as soon as February 3rd.

“Families seeking safety should be welcome into our communities and have a fair and humane opportunity to ask for asylum. Under a new administration, we have an opportunity to act with humanity, compassion and respect towards people seeking safety – instead, the administration could be responsible for sending people, including toddlers, back into deadly and dangerous situations. We can, and must, do better,” said Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA.

As this administration moves away from the anti-immigrant policies of the past, we call on the Department to take immediate steps to ensure these families remain together and free in the United States. The organizations are urging the Department to leave behind the racist and unfair treatment of those seeking safety, as we move towards a more just and humane system of immigration. Today the U.S. Senate will vote to confirm Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas must commit to moving away from past anti-immigrant policies. The Department must act immediately to release people – including all families – from detention, end family detention, and ensure liberty is the presumption, not immigration detention. In his new role, Mayorkas has the opportunity to immediately take decisive action and ensure families stay together and free and end the discriminatory and unjust system of mass detention.

“We seek protection and an opportunity to have a life full of peace and safety, free from the death threats and persecution we suffered in our countries. Our countries are places of corruption without laws. We thought that the United States had a history of respecting the law and the wellbeing of children. In our experience, the government has not only subjected us to unfair and illegal processes, but it has also tortured us by keeping us detained for so long. We only ask for our rights to ask for asylum to be respected and for the opportunity to be safe with our mothers”, said Ana* (pseudonym), a 16-year-old girl from Honduras.

These asylum-seeking families fall outside of the Pekoske Memo’s priorities, and the Department of Homeland Security should immediately stop their deportations and release them.

“The Trump administration forced toddlers to celebrate two birthdays behind a chain-link fence, threatened to separate them from their mothers, and denied their right to seek asylum. Now, President Biden will deport these children to danger. This is not the change the new administration promised; it is more of the same,” said Shalyn Fluharty, the director of Proyecto Dilley.

“The removal of children to harm can never be a priority for the United States,” added Bridget Cambria, executive director of Aldea – the People’s Justice Center.

Of additional concern, the Department has been and continues to plan to deport Black asylum-seekers that fall nowhere in the priorities listed in the Pekoske Memo – many have already been sent back to dangerous conditions. These actions run in direct contradiction of current guidance and target those most at risk instead of working to improve the system, and point again to the racist nature of the immigration enforcement machine. People seeking safety must be supported, not deported.

“Children and families are not, and should never be, an enforcement priority. We call on the Department of Homeland Security to follow their own directives and immediately halt the deportations of these asylum seeking families and release them to seek protection safely here in the United States,” states Robyn Barnard, senior staff attorney, Refugee Representation, at Human Rights First.

People can learn more about Amnesty International USA’s campaign to free people from ICE detention here.