HOUSTON (AP) – A federal judge ordered the release of children detained with their parents in U.S. immigration prisons on Friday and denounced the Trump administration’s long-term detention of families during the coronavirus pandemic.
US District Judge Dolly Gee’s order applies to children detained for more than 20 days in three detention centers for families in Texas and Pennsylvania administered by the U.S. Immigration Service and customs officials. Some have been detained since last year.
Citing the recent spread of the virus in two of the three facilities, Gee identified July 17 as a time limit for children to either be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors.
The detention centers for families are “on fire” and there is no time for half measures, “she wrote.
Gee’s order said that ICE detained 124 children in its centers, which are separate from the United States Department of Health and Human Services facilities for unaccompanied children who held approximately 1,000 children in early June. Numbers in both systems have dropped significantly since before in the Trump administration, as the U.S. is driving out most people trying to cross the border or forcing them to wait for their immigration cases in Mexico.
Gee oversees a long-term court settlement that governs the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrant children, known as the Flores Agreement. Her order does not directly apply to the parents who are being held with their children.
Gee’s injunction says that ICE may refuse to release a child if there is no suitable sponsor, the child’s parent waives the rights under the Flores Agreement, or if there is an “earlier unexplained absence from a scheduled hearing.”
ICE did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
But most parents refused to appoint a sponsor last month when ICE officials unexpectedly asked them who could take their children with them when the adults were detained, the family’s lawyers said. The agency then said it was conducting a “routine parole” in accordance with the law “and previous orders from Gee.
Proponents believe that ICE should release all families from detention, especially as the coronavirus has spread rapidly through immigration detention. In a court revealed on Thursday, ICE said 11 children and parents tested positive for COVID-19 at the family detention center in Karnes City, Texas.
At the detention center in nearby Dilley, at least three parents and children – including a child who turned 2 this week – were placed in isolation after two private contractors and an ICE officer tested positive for the virus.
Amy Maldonado, a lawyer working with incarcerated families, said Gee “clearly acknowledged that the government is not prepared to protect the health and safety of the children, which is their duty.”
“They have to make the wise choice and leave the parents free to take care of their children,” she said of the government.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that disappear within two to three weeks. For some, especially the elderly and those with pre-existing health problems, it can cause a more serious illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
More than 2,500 people in ICE custody have tested positive for COVID-19. The agency says it has released at least 900 people who are considered to be at increased medical risk and population reduction in the three family detention centers. But during court records last month, ICE said it considered most people in family detention to be flight risks because they had outstanding eviction orders or cases pending.
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