SAN ANTONIO – Two Salvadoran women and their children are among the latest immigrant families released from detention just as a federal judge ruled Friday it had been illegal to hold them and thousands of others in detention centers.
"It's excellent," said a mother now at a church-run shelter south of downtown. "It's a very important decision."
Another mom staying there temporarily called the ruling "marvelous."
Both women, along with their children, had been held in Dilley at the government's largest detention center. The first center opened in Karnes County soon after the influx of thousands of Central American women and children last year.
The decision by Judge Dorothy Gee of California was handed down after no agreement was reached during two months of negotiations between the Justice Department and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, which filed the lawsuit earlier this year.
The judge said family detention violated the 1997 class action settlement for housing children. Her ruling also applies to their parents.
"As the judge said, it is astonishing that the our federal government committed millions in taxpayer dollars to a plan it knew wasn't going to work," said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of RAICES, a nonprofit that provides low-cost legal services for immigrants. "The government did as much as it could for as long as it could and just let the system of justice catch up."
Ryan said RAICES and other advocacy groups do not want the government to appeal the decision.
"They know this is illegal. They know this is wrong. Now they've been given an off-ramp," Ryan said.
However, in a statement, Marsha Catron, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said, "We are disappointed with the court's decision and are reviewing it in consultation with the Department of Justice. We plan to respond to the Court's order to show cause by Aug. 3."
The court has given the government 90 days to comply with the order or provide a reason why it shouldn't.
Ryan said it is not yet known when or if the two detention centers in Texas and a smaller one in Pennsylvania will be closing.
The centers were opened as a deterrent to keep other immigrant families from coming to the U.S.
But Ryan said he compares discouraging refugees fleeing violence in their home countries to boarding up the windows of a burning building.
"You might stop people from jumping out, but you're not going to stop them from dying," he said.