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Posted: 2015-07-05 04:00:00

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson took a step in the right direction last month when he announced “substantial changes” in how the department treats migrant families taken into custody along the southern border.

He was responding to widespread concerns that mothers with young children — already traumatized after fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and making the long, dangerous trek north — were being harmed anew by long, indeterminate confinement in the department’s family prisons in southern Texas and in Pennsylvania.

In his June 24 announcement, Mr. Johnson said most detainees who had been languishing as they awaited final decisions on their asylum claims could now be released quickly on bond, to stay with family members in the United States. They would only have to complete the first step in the asylum-seeking process, an interview to describe credible fears of returning home. Department statistics show that 88 percent of families in detention this year have passed this first hurdle. Mr. Johnson also said the department would set bond amounts, which had been prohibitive for most migrants, at “reasonable and realistic” levels, and make it easier for lawyers and interpreters to meet with detainees.

“The detention of families will be short-term in most cases,” he promised. “Most cases” is an improvement, though it should be all cases. For many of the thousands of women and young children, freedom cannot come soon enough.

One 27-year-old woman, who recently spoke with Julia Preston of The Times, fled Honduras because drug traffickers had killed five of her relatives and told her she was next. She had been locked up in detention in Dilley, Tex., since February with two children, ages 9 and 6. “I would be lying if I said they didn’t treat us well,” she said. But she added, “My children get so sad, and they ask me, ‘Mama, when will we get out of here?’ ”

Though conditions in Dilley seem clean and safe, with a school and a medical clinic, extended imprisonment leaves many despairing. Some women have tried to kill themselves. Others have waged protests, as the months have dragged on.

Evidence of mental-health problems — anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide — among families in detention has prompted three immigrant-rights groups to file a complaint urging the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate. The office should do so, even as the department begins what should be the large-scale release of families seeking asylum.

These family detention centers were supposed to be a stopgap measure to handle the surge last year of tens of thousands of migrants, some of them children traveling alone, who showed up at the border, seeking out Border Patrol agents so they could turn themselves in.

The Obama administration was rattled by the humanitarian crisis and the ensuing political furor, and it hoped its tough detention policy would send a message to Central America that people should not make the dangerous trip. But as Mr. Johnson’s announcement belatedly acknowledges, deterrence was the wrong response. This is a refugee crisis, not a crisis of border security.

Families seeking protection in the United States deserve a swift, fair hearing of their petitions; prolonged confinement is damaging. The government should be doing all it can to help them, not penalizing them in immigration jails.

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