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Refugee Kids Fight Obama Detention Policy

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Obama administration is imprisoning thousands of children under an illegal "no release" policy, eight children and mothers from Mexico and Central America claim in a federal class action.

All eight lead plaintiffs, who are identified only by initials, are being held at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, 60 miles southeast of San Antonio.

The lawsuit resembles a slew of similar cases brought against the Reagan administration 30 years ago, when it was imprisoning children and families fleeing the wars in Central America.

Then, as now, the administration opened up detention centers in remote places, reducing access to legal counsel, expediting deportation hearings and denying political asylum to thousands of people who had well-founded fear of persecution in their homelands. The Reagan administration policies led to wide-ranging federal court judgments in favor of the persecuted people, which judgments, however, did not come until the Central American wars were essentially over.

Those policies have been reinstituted, according to the Jan. 6 lawsuit. The only real difference is that today's refugees are not fleeing open civil war, but violence from police and drug cartels fighting for control of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Attorneys for the mothers and children in the new lawsuit claim that each of their clients has been found by an immigration officer or immigration judge "to have a 'credible fear' of persecution, meaning there is a 'significant possibility' she or he will be granted asylum." But the Department of Homeland Security holds them in immigration prisons and other holding centers, under a "no-release policy" "not because they individually pose a danger to the community or flight risk that requires their detention, but in order to deter other Central American migrants from coming to the United States."

Immigration detention is not designed as punishment, the attorneys say. It is meant to ensure that people appear for the deportation hearings, or, in some cases, to protect public safety. According to the lawsuit, the Obama administration adhered to these principles until June 2014, when increased numbers of children and families entered the United States Southwest. The DHS then decided to imprison them, to deter others, the complaint states.

Since then, "DHS has moved to expand its detention capacity from 96 beds to more than 3,000 beds, with plans for further expansion of the family detention system," the complaint states.

"This detention in a prison-like setting exacerbates the trauma that plaintiffs have already experienced in their countries of origin and during their flight to the United States. Indeed, mental health experts have condemned family detention because of the detrimental - and often permanent - effect it has on the psychological well-being of detained children," according to the complaint.

Plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the no-release policy violates the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Due Process Clause of the 5th Amendment, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The families are represented by eight law offices across the country, led by Dennis Auerbach with Covington & Burling, or Washington, D.C. Six ACLU offices are co-counsel, as is the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.

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