By Nick Valencia
(CNN) — The Department of Homeland Security this week announced it is opening the largest immigrant family detention facility in the United States, amid concerns from immigrant-rights groups.
The center in Dilley, Texas, was opened on Monday to house the surge of “family units,” or women and children who say they fled extreme violence in their native Central American countries to seek asylum in the United States.
The privately contracted facility sits on 51 acres and will have 2,400 beds at a cost of $260 million per year to taxpayers, according to local reports.
“The regional refugee crisis in Central America demands a humanitarian response by the United States, not a show of force,” a coalition of immigrant-rights groups said this week in an open letter to President Barack Obama.
“These mothers have faced unimaginable suffering and danger and have come to the U.S. seeking protection, often with close relatives in the U.S. who are willing and able to provide for them. They are not evading law enforcement; they are seeking out Border Patrol officers,” the letter added.
In a statement at the opening of the detention center, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said the facility promotes and highlights “the border security aspects of the executive actions President Obama announced on Nov. 20.”
“We will continue to work with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to address with them the conditions in those three countries that are the ‘push’ factors for illegal migration from there to here, and to repatriate those of their citizens who came here illegally.” Johnson added.
Johnson said the Obama administration also intends to go forward with an “in-country refugee program” in the three countries, a program announced last month by Vice President Joe Biden.
The program will “allow parents who are lawfully present in the United States to request access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for their children still in those three countries,” Johnson said.
There are at least three other family detention centers in use by the federal government to house detained immigrant families, including centers in Karnes, Texas, and Berks County, Pennsylvania. A facility in Artesia, New Mexico, is expected to close in the coming weeks, and hundreds of immigrants staying there will get preference for relocating to the Dilley facility.
Funding for the centers will expire in late February 2015 if Congress fails to act on a DHS request for supplemental funding for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, Johnson said.
Immigrant-rights groups have been vocal in their opposition to the centers, which sprouted this summer as a result of the unprecedented influx of undocumented immigrants from Central America.
Earlier this year, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund claimed guards working at the Karnes facility requesting sexual favors in return for money.
“This is unjust and a repudiation of our nation’s values and historic commitment to justice for all,” said Leslie Holman, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Doesn’t that tell the administration that these most vulnerable of human beings deserve protection rather than warehousing as prisoners?”
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