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On Friday, Judge Dolly Gee of the United States District Court for the Central District of California ruled that children held in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers for more than 20 days must be released by July 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ruling will apply to the unaccompanied minors in the US Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities and 124 children in three detention centers across the US, two of which are located in Texas and one in Pennsylvania.
The ruling will not apply to parents in the ICE detention centers.
According to ICE court filings revealed on Thursday, outbreaks have been reported in the two detention centers in Texas.
In the Kansas City center, 11 detainees, including children, have tested positive for the virus. At the center in Dilley, three parents and children were quarantined after two private contractors and an ICE official tested positive for COVID-19. In total, approximately 2,500 immigrants in the detention centers have tested positive.
Gee wrote in the ruling, “The family residential centers are on fire and there is no more time for half measures,” stating that “unevenly implemented written protocols” have led to the spread of the virus.
To prevent an outbreak in the detention facilities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had recommended social distancing, mask-wearing and medical treatment for those who tested positive for the virus.
Gee added, “Although progress has been made, the Court is not surprised that [COVID-19] has arrived at both the [Family Residential Centers] and [Office of Refugee Resettlement] facilities, as health professionals have warned all along.”
The judge’s ruling is part of the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, an agreement that has set national guidelines for the government’s treatment and release of children in ICE detention centers. The agreement also stipulates that in most cases the government must release children from detention within 20 days.
Each of the Trump administration’s previous attempts to end the agreement over the last two years has been blocked by Gee, which has prompted the administration to file an appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. If successful, the appeal would allow the administration to detain children until the determination of their asylum status, a process that can take years to complete.
Gee also stated in the ruling that ICE officials must release the children to “available suitable sponsors” in the US “or other available COVID-free non-congregate settings" provided they have the consent of their parents or guardians.
However, in May when ICE officials asked parents of detained children to choose between keeping their children or turning them over to a sponsor during a “routine parole review consistent with the law,” most parents chose the former.
Democratic lawmakers criticized ICE’s move and demanded further explanation in a letter to the acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and acting ICE Director Matt Albence.
“The Administration must stop using this public health crisis as a means for implementing unlawful and inhumane immigration policies. In these extraordinary times, human suffering need not be compounded by locking up families or instilling fear in the hearts of migrant parents,” read the letter.
Holly Cooper, co-director of the University of California, Davis Immigration Law Clinic and an attorney representing Flores agreement class members, stated that ICE has not released children from detainment “because in order to do it in a humane way, they have to release the child with a parent."
“What we’re hoping is that ICE will do the humane thing and not separate any child from their parents because that’s what the children want. That’s what our class members want. That’s what the advocates want. That’s what the parents want."
In response to Gee’s ruling, an ICE spokesperson responded in a statement saying that the “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is currently reviewing the most recent order issued by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California yesterday evening in the Flores litigation.”
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