By Sandra G. Leon
A federal judge has ordered that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) release children being held at three family detention centers by July 17th to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 among those populations.
The judge, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles, issued the order that applies to 127 children who have been in ICE centers for more than 20 days. There have already been more than 2,500 positive COVID-19 cases among immigrants held in ICE facilities throughout the country and over 900 have been released to reduce overcrowding.
“The family residential centers are on fire, and there is no more time for half measures,” Judge Gee wrote she wrote in her decision. “The court is not surprised that COVID-19 has arrived.”
Judge Gee also ordered ICE to “urgently enforce its existing COVID-19 protocols,” including social distancing, requiring mask use, and increased testing withing facilities that hold undocumented immigrants.
The ruling will apply to 124 children who will be allowed to go home with “suitable sponsors”, including there own parents. Judge Gee suggested to ICE that the agency could use tracking devices on some parents if deemed “necessary” for them to be released along with their children.
Judge Gee has been overseeing compliance with the 1997 Flores settlement. The Flores settlement stems from the case of Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old girl from El Salvador who fled her country in 1985 and tried to enter the United States to be with her aunt. She was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center where she was handcuffed and strip-searched. She was not released to relatives because the INS refused to allow third-party relatives or sponsors to take custody of the minor.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit, Flores v Janet Reno, the then-Attorney General under President Clinton. The government settled the case by creating a policy that required agencies to provide immigrant minors in custody a certain quality of life, including things such as food, drinking water, medical assistance in emergencies, toilets, sinks, temperature control, supervision and as much separation from unrelated adults as possible, and to release the children from detention without unnecessary delay to their parents, other adult relatives, or licensed programs within 20 days.
The Trump administration announced plans to end the Flores settlement policy back in August of last year when ICE and DHS began separating undocumented immigrants at the border and separated parents from children. Thousands of children were held in detention facilities that did not meet the criteria of the Flores settlement.
Last year, DHS was still holding more than 2,000 minors that had entered the US without any adults and were apprehended as “unaccompanied minors”.