Women and their children wait in line to register at the Honduran Center for Returned Migrants after being deported from Mexico, in San Pedro Sula, northern Honduras on June 20, 2014.

(Washington, DC) – The United States Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) decision to scale back its use of family immigration detention could help thousands of children and mothers who are fleeing persecution, Human Rights Watch said today. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced on June 24, 2015, that the Obama administration was committed to “substantial changes” to family immigration detention.

The greatest benefit would be for families who are seeking asylum in the US, Human Rights Watch said. Johnson said that “once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”

“By scaling back family detention, the US may finally be coming to its senses on immigration,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The US never should have locked up families indefinitely, much less those who are seeking asylum.”

According to US government statistics, 88 percent of families in detention have shown that they have reasonable or credible claims of fear of returning to their home countries, a first step in qualifying for asylum in the US.

The DHS statement follows a US congressional delegation visit to family detention centers in Texas. On June 22, delegation members called for an end to family detention. Human Rights Watch has documented serious harm from the practice, and, along with other human rights groups, has repeatedly called for an end to family detention.

Over the past year the US vastly expanded its family detention capacity, from under 100 beds to almost 3,000, purportedly in response to an increase in families trying to enter the US.

The DHS statement did not detail how the department would address problems of high bonds that were keeping families in detention, or whether it would end the indefinite detention of families who were not seeking asylum. The statement repeatedly referred to the act of seeking asylum as “illegal migration,” which wrongfully suggests that those fleeing threats to their life or freedom are somehow acting illegally, Human Rights Watch said.

Indefinite immigration detention takes a severe psychological toll on children and their parents, Human Rights Watch said. International law prohibits the detention of children except as a last resort and even then only for the shortest period of time and prohibits detention of asylum seekers except as a last resort and only for reasons such as concerns about danger to the public.

“The Department of Homeland Security had embraced family detention as an option of first resort, ignoring the damage it causes children,” Ginatta said. “This new approach should be the first step on a road that puts an end to family detention for all families – permanently.”