WASHINGTON — For nearly three months this summer, the Obama administration carefully avoided answering questions about what happened to tens of thousands of immigrant families caught illegally crossing the Mexican border and released into the United States with instructions to report back to immigration authorities.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and others said they faced deportation. But it turns out that tens of thousands of those immigrants did not follow the government's instructions to meet with federal immigration agents within 15 days. Instead, they have vanished into the interior of the U.S.
The Homeland Security Department privately acknowledged that about 70 percent of immigrant families failed to report as ordered. The disclosure came during a confidential meeting at its Washington headquarters with immigration advocates participating in a federal working group on detention and enforcement policies.
The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of Wednesday's meeting and separately interviewed participants.
On the recording, the government did not specify the total number of families released into the U.S. since October. Since only a few hundred families have already been returned to their home countries and limited U.S. detention facilities can house only about 1,200 family members, the 70 percent figure suggests the government released roughly 41,000 members of immigrant families who subsequently failed to appear at federal immigration offices.
The official, who was not identified by name on the recording, also said final deportation had been ordered for at least 860 people traveling as families caught at the border since May but only 14 people had reported as ordered.
The Homeland Security Department did not dispute the authenticity of the recording.
In an emailed statement Thursday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the no-show figure represented "an approximate snapshot" of cases since May. Christiansen said some people may still report to immigration court hearings, and a "significant" number of deportation cases are still pending before judges.
The AP reported in June that the administration would not say publicly how many immigrant families from Central America caught crossing into the U.S. it had released in recent months or how many of those subsequently reported back to the government after 15 days as directed. The AP noted that senior U.S. officials directly familiar with the issue, including at the Homeland Security Department and White House, had dodged the answer on at least seven occasions over two weeks, alternately saying that they did not know the figure or didn't have it immediately at hand.
Homeland Security's public affairs office during the same period did not answer roughly a dozen requests for the figures.
More than 66,000 immigrants traveling as families, mostly mothers and young children, have been apprehended at the border since the start of the budget year in October. Nearly 60,000 of those immigrants are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala and cannot be immediately repatriated, so the government has been releasing them into the U.S. and telling them to report within 15 days to the nearest Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices.
Republican lawmakers have been critical of the administration's decision to release any immigrants caught crossing the border illegally.
"With this administration's failure to enforce our immigration laws, it is no surprise that 70 percent of the families released take their chances to stay here and don't show up for their follow-up appointments or court dates," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said.
That previously undisclosed no-show rate led in part to the government's decision in June to open a temporary detention facility at a federal training center in Artesia, New Mexico.
A second immigration jail in Texas was later converted for families and can house about 530 people. A third such detention center will open in Texas later this year. Before the new facility in Artesia, the government had room for fewer than 100 people at its only family detention center in Pennsylvania.
Immigration advocates have complained that the new detention centers were punishing immigrants who ultimately may win lawful asylum claims to remain in the U.S. In the meeting, they also questioned whether immigration officials had clearly and properly instructed immigrants to meet with federal agents within 15 days.
The ICE official said it was necessary to detain families to ensure they didn't vanish into the U.S. He encouraged advocacy groups to help find ways to ensure that immigrants reported to federal agents as ordered so the government could begin processing their cases, including any requests to remain in the U.S. legally.
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