July 6, 2020


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Judge orders US to free migrant children from family detention, citing virus spread

A federal judge in the United States has ordered the release of children held with their parents in US immigration jails and denounced the Trump administration’s prolonged detention of families during the coronavirus pandemic.

US district judge Dolly Gee’s order on Friday applies to children held for more than 20 days at three family detention centre’s in Texas and Pennsylvania operated US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some have been detained since last year.

Citing the recent spread of the virus in two of the three facilities, Gee set a deadline of 17 July for children to either be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors.

“The family detention centre’s are on fire and there is no more time for half measures,” she wrote.

Gee’s order said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was detaining 124 children in its centres, which are separate from US 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 US is expelling most people trying to cross the border or requiring them to wait for their immigration cases in Mexico.

Gee oversees a long-running court settlement governing the US government’s treatment of immigrant children known as the Flores agreement. Her order does not directly apply to the parents detained with their children.

Gees’s order said ICE can decline to release a child if there is not a suitable sponsor, the child’s parent waives rights under the Flores agreement, or if there is a prior unexplained failure to appear at a scheduled hearing.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

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 centre in Karnes City, Texas.

At the detention centre in near 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 official tested positive for the virus.

Amy Maldonado, an attorney who works with detained families, said Gee clearly recognized that the government is not willing to protect the health and safety of the children, which is their obligation.

“They need to make the sensible choice and release the parents to care for their children,” she said of the government.

More than 2,500 people in ICE custody have tested positive for Covid-19. The agency says it has released at least 900 people considered to have heightened medical risk and reduced the populations at its three family detention centres.

But in court filings last month, ICE said it considered most of the people in family detention to be flight risks because they had pending deportation orders or cases under review.

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