ICE to close controversial immigration detention center in New Mexico

The Obama administration confirmed Tuesday it is closing a controversial family detention center it had quickly set up in a remote New Mexico community this summer following a surge of Central American children and parents crossing the southwest border.

By the end of next month, any detainees remaining in Artesia will be moved to one of two family immigration detention centers in Texas, including a massive new one planned for Dilley, a small city south of a San Antonio.

The retrofitted Federal Law Enforcement Training Campus in Artesia — its dormitories housed U.S. Border Patrol trainees — was holding 188 adults and 231 children Tuesday. Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries wracked by poverty and gang violence.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed their plans in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday morning after the newspaper requested a tour of the detention center in New Mexico. ICE is planning to make its plans public this afternoon.

“ICE opened the temporary facility in Artesia in June as a critical piece of the government’s response to the unprecedented influx of adults with children at the Southwest border,” Acting ICE Director Thomas Winkowski said in a prepared statement. “Since then, the numbers of illegal migrants crossing into south Texas has gone down considerably.”

ICE’s announcement has implications for Georgia, where the contentious debate over illegal immigration remains red hot. Georgia was home to 400,000 immigrants without legal status in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center estimate released Tuesday. The year before, Georgia drew national attention when it followed Arizona’s lead and enacted a stringent crackdown on illegal immigration.

As the government grappled with this year’s influx of immigrant children, the Artesia detention center became a lightning rod for controversy and a political headache for President Barack Obama. In August, a coalition of immigrant and civil rights groups sued the federal government, complaining it had transformed the center into a “deportation mill” that was violating the detainees’ constitutional rights with fast-track deportation proceedings. That same month, federal authorities released an 11-year-old boy from the facility after discovering he is a U.S. citizen. Last month, 32 House Democrats sent Obama a letter, raising concerns about the nation’s “rapid, mass expansion of family detention.”

Senior ICE officials said they have made significant improvements at Artesia facility, while underscoring that it was always meant to be temporary. They said the new detention center planned for Dilley, Texas, will be less isolated, putting detainees closer to what they and their families need, including immigration attorneys. The facility — which will be operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America — is expected to be the largest immigration detention center in the nation with a capacity for 2,400 detainees.

Winkowski said it will provide additional capacity if the southwest border experiences another surge of immigrants this spring.

“We must be prepared for traditional, seasonal increases in illegal migration,” he said.