The judge ordered the Obama administration to release immigrant children “without unnecessary delay” to a parent or other relative in the United States and, in a new mandate, to also release the parent unless that person poses a flight risk or a threat to national security.
A federal judge in California has given the Obama administration two months to change its detention practices to ensure the rapid release of children and their parents caught crossing the border illegally.
In an opinion last month, the judge, Dolly Gee of U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, found that the administration had violated the terms of a 1997 court-ordered settlement governing the treatment of unaccompanied children who tried to enter illegally without a parent. The judge determined that the settlement, in a case known as Flores, covered all children in immigration detention, including those held with a parent.
After considering final arguments from both sides, Gee issued an order late Friday to put her ruling into effect. She ordered the administration to release children “without unnecessary delay” to a parent or other relative in the United States and, in a significant new mandate, to also release the parent unless that person poses a flight risk or a threat to national security. The settlement requires the release of children from secure detention within five days.
Gee also prohibited the administration from holding children in secure facilities that are not licensed to care for minors. She ordered the Border Patrol to upgrade the “deplorable” conditions in its front-line stations to ensure a “safe and sanitary” environment for children. She said the new measures must be in place by Oct. 23.
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The judge’s order is the most serious legal setback to a vast expansion of detention of migrant families the Department of Homeland Security initiated last year after an influx of illegal border crossers in South Texas. Officials opened two large secure family-detention centers in Texas, in addition to an existing one in Berks County, Pa. Although the two Texas centers offer fully staffed medical clinics, schools, gyms and other amenities, they are run by private prison contractors, not by agencies with state licenses to care for children, as the Flores agreement requires.
The administration is also facing criticism from immigrant advocates and lawyers over the detention of children. A report last week by Human Rights First, a national rights organization, found that children at the Berks County center showed “symptoms of depression, behavioral regression and anxiety” and “increased aggression toward both parents and other children,” after only a few weeks. Their parents also “appear to be suffering from depression, including feelings of helplessness with regard to the care and health of their children.”
The Obama administration had asked the judge to reconsider her ruling, arguing that recent policy changes greatly reduced detention times for most mothers and children. Officials said their goal was to hold families an average of 20 days, enough time to identify them, give them medical checks and determine whether they have valid asylum claims to pursue. Most of the families are fleeing predatory gangs or other violent abuse in three Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Gee scorned the administration’s arguments in Friday’s order, saying they “utterly failed” to persuade her to reconsider. She said officials’ warnings that the swift release of families could spur another influx of Central American minors were “speculative at best and, at worse, fear mongering.”