A federal judge on Friday ordered the release of children held with their parents in U.S. immigration centers and denounced the Trump administration’s prolonged detention of families during the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee’s order applies to children held for more than 20 days at three family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some have been detained since last year.
Citing the recent spread of the virus in two of the three facilities, Judge Gee set a deadline of July 17 for children to either be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors.
The family detention centers “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures,” she wrote.
In May, ICE said it was detaining 184 children at the three detention centers, which are separate from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services facilities for unaccompanied children that were holding around 1,000 children in early June. The numbers in both systems have fallen significantly since earlier in the Trump administration because the U.S. is expelling most people trying to cross the border or requiring them to wait for their immigration cases in Mexico.
Judge Gee oversees a long-running court settlement governing the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrant children known as the Flores agreement. Her order doesn’t directly apply to the parents detained with their children.
But most parents last month refused to designate a sponsor when ICE officials unexpectedly asked them who could take their children if the adults remained detained, according to lawyers for the families. The agency said then it was conducting a “routine parole review consistent with the law” and Judge Gee’s previous orders.
Advocates contend that ICE should release all families from detention especially as the coronavirus has spread rapidly through immigration detention. In court filings revealed Thursday, ICE said 11 children and parents have tested positive for Covid-19 at the family detention center in Karnes City, Texas.
Amy Maldonado, an attorney who works with detained families, said Judge Gee “clearly recognized that the government is not willing to protect the health and safety of the children, which is their obligation.”