California Federal Judge Reaffirms Order to Release Detained Migrant Children

California Federal Judge Reaffirms Order to Release Detained Migrant Children

The immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Ilana Panich-Linsman, New York Times)

The immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Ilana Panich-Linsman, New York Times)

Blog written by Tiffany Keng

Last Friday, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered for the government to release children held in family detention centers “without unnecessary delay,” and with their mothers when possible. The family detention centers originally came as a response to the surge of Central American women and children, many of them unaccompanied minors, caught crossing the U.S. border in the last two years.  According to the Los Angeles Times, an estimated 1,400 women and children are currently being held at three detention centers, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, as they attempt to pursue claims of asylum or other ways of remaining in the country.

Last month, in late July, Judge Gee found that these detention centers failed to meet the minimum legal requirements set out in a 1997 court settlement related to the detention of migrant children in the country illegally.  The 1997 settlement, Flores v. Reno, governed the treatment of unaccompanied minors who tried to enter the U.S. illegally without a parent. In her ruling, the judge determined that the settlement covered all children in detention, including those with a parent, and that the government had violated the terms of the settlement.

Despite the Department of Homeland Security’s request for the judge to reconsider her July ruling, Judge Gee reaffirmed her ruling last Friday, calling the government’s arguments “repackaged and reheated.”

Specifically, Judge Gee found that the family detention centers were a “material breach” of provisions in the 1997 settlement requiring that minors be placed in facilities that are not secured like prisons and are licensed to take care of children.  Currently, the centers are run by private prison contractors, not by agencies with state licenses to care for children.  The ruling found that the children had been held in “widespread deplorable conditions;” in some cases, those conditions include children being held in crowded rooms for days at a time without any place to sleep. The judge ordered the government to upgrade the conditions to ensure a “safe and sanitary” environment for children. Judge Gee also noted that immigration officials “routinely failed to proceed as expeditiously as possible to place unaccompanied minors, and in some instances, may still be unnecessarily dragging their feet now.”

Judge Gee ordered the government to release the children “without unnecessary delay” to a parent or other relative in the U.S., and in a significant mandate, to release the parent as well unless that person posed a flight risk or threat to national security.  She gave federal officials until October 23 to comply with her order.  Thereafter, Judge Gee’s order provides that the government may only hold families for five days, unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” such as when “70,000 Central American migrants flooded into America and overwhelmed the system,” in which case the government could extend the window for release to 20 days.

In response to the ruling, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement declaring that the Judge Gee’s clarifications in her August 21st ruling will “permit the government to process families apprehended at the border at family residential facilities consistent with congressional provided authority.”

Back in November 2014, Alison blogged about her pro bono work in Artesia, New Mexico, defending unrepresented women and children from Central America who were detained by the government (see Alison’s Thanksgiving post here).  It is amazing to see the continuing progress that has since been made by attorneys (mostly volunteer immigrant and nonimmigrant attorneys) and human rights groups fighting unceasingly for these women and children. This ruling is yet another confirmation that these family detention centers are wrong and need to end.