NEW YORK (AP) — The government acted unlawfully by requiring unaccompanied immigrant children to remain detained until an agency’s director personally approved their release, a process that delayed their freedom and caused suffering, a judge ruled Wednesday in ordering an end to the practice.
U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty in Manhattan said in a written ruling that a mid-2017 rule change by the newly appointed director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement that required the director’s personal approval of release decisions was wrong.
He said he “cannot turn a blind eye” to suffering and irreparable injury caused by the policy.
Crotty also granted class-action status to the legal action brought by civil rights lawyers on behalf of one child.
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A spokesman for government lawyers said there was no immediate comment.
Crotty said lawyers for the New York Civil Liberties Union had “adequately demonstrated irreparable injury and the likelihood of success on numerous claims.”
In a release, the NYCLU said the ruling could affect hundreds of immigrant children.
NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman called the policy by an agency charged with protecting immigrant children and placing them with approved sponsors cruel, saying it upended lives.
She said the Office of Refugee Resettlement “can no longer keep children detained at the whim of a director who has demonstrated little expertise and less consideration for the well-being of children.”
Crotty said evidence showed that the new policy was instituted within hours of the new director’s appointment “with no record demonstrating the need for a change.”
“Apparently, the change was based on unidentified news reports about criminal activities involving immigrant minors,” the judge said. He added that he had seen no proof there was a consideration of relevant law, agency documents or the impact on unaccompanied immigrants.
Crotty heard arguments by lawyers earlier this month and promised a quick decision.
The NYCLU said about 700 children across the country have been subject to the policy that Crotty struck down.
It said children have remained detained in New York state for an average of over eight months, with 20 percent of them detained more than a year. Before last year, over 90 percent of similarly situated children would be released within six weeks, it added.
Paige Austin, an NYCLU staff attorney, said the policy was another way in which the administration of President Donald Trump was separating immigrant families.
“We hope that today’s decision will help children get out of custody faster and eliminate one tool that this administration has used to further traumatize the children in its care,” Austin said.
In his ruling, Crotty made a point of saying his decision was unrelated to the controversy over the Department of Homeland Security’s new policy of separating children from their undocumented parents at the border.
In a court filing, the child the lawsuit was brought on behalf of said: “Being detained for this long made me feel desperate. It’s especially hard when we keep getting told we’re getting out, and then being disappointed when it doesn’t happen.”