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“The changes at the Karnes and Dilley family prisons are, at best, reversible operational changes that reduce the harm of long-term detention, and at worst, a temporary move to quell concern about this controversial immigration policy,” said Andrea Meza, director of family detention services at Raices, a nonprofit organization in Texas that represents immigrants. “Medical and mental health experts unilaterally agree that there is no safe way to detain a child.”

Erica Schommer, a law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, called the new 72-hour policy a “positive” sign, but cautioned that any detentions of children raised concerns because of research showing that children in such conditions suffered long-term damage.

“It’s a sign the administration hears the message that people don’t want families detained,” she said. “However, they’re still in detention centers, and it’s my understanding people will not be free to go.”

The family residential centers were erected during the Obama administration to house a surge of Central American families fleeing gang violence and poverty who traveled to the border — often guided by human smugglers — and requested asylum.

Many of them were held for months until an immigration judge heard their asylum cases. But a federal judge in California determined that the prolonged detention was a violation of a settlement decree, known as the Flores agreement, that limited the length of time children could be held in government custody.

Migrant families, expecting a more relaxed border policy, began amassing on the Mexican side even before Mr. Biden took office. His announcement that his administration did not plan to immediately allow large numbers of adult migrants to enter the country did not dissuade them.

To more quickly move families through the detention system and match them with relatives in the United States, the Biden administration is considering deploying Health and Human Services officials to Border Patrol stations, the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, said this week.

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