A federal judge in California has ruled that the Obama administration’s detention of children and their mothers who were caught crossing the border illegally is a serious violation of a longstanding court settlement, and that the families should be released as quickly as possible.
In a decision late Friday roundly rejecting the administration’s arguments for holding the families, Judge Dolly M. Gee of Federal District Court for the Central District of California found that two detention centers in Texas that the administration opened last summer fail to meet minimum legal requirements of the 1997 settlement for facilities housing children.
Judge Gee also found that migrant children had been held in “widespread deplorable conditions” in Border Patrol stations after they were first caught, and she said the authorities had “wholly failed” to provide the “safe and sanitary” conditions required for children even in temporary cells.
The opinion was a significant legal blow to detention policies ordered by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in response to an influx of children and parents, mostly from Central America, across the border in South Texas last summer. In her 25-page ruling, Judge Gee gave a withering critique of the administration’s positions, declaring them “unpersuasive” and “dubious” and saying officials had ignored “unambiguous” terms of the settlement.
The administration has struggled with a series of setbacks in the federal courts for its immigration policies, including decisions that halted President Obama’s programs to give protection from deportation and work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants.
“We are disappointed with the court’s decision and are reviewing it in consultation with the Department of Justice,” said Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security. She said officials would respond to an order by the judge to present a plan by Aug. 3 for carrying out the ruling.
Judge Gee’s decision was based on the 18-year-old settlement in a hard-fought class action lawsuit, known as Flores, that has governed the treatment of minors apprehended at the border who are unaccompanied — not with a parent. Judge Gee found that the Flores settlement, which has been carried out with little dispute from the federal authorities, also applies to children caught with their parents.
The judge also found that the family detention centers in Texas were a “material breach” of provisions requiring that minors be placed in facilities that are not secured like prisons and are licensed to take care of children. The detention centers are secure facilities run by private prison contractors.
She ruled on a lawsuit that was filed in February by Peter Schey and Carlos Holguin, lawyers at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles. They sued after two months of negotiations between them and the Justice Department produced no accord on how to change the detention centers.
“I think this spells the beginning of the end for the Obama administration’s immigrant family detention policy,” Mr. Schey, the president of the human rights center, said Friday. “A policy that just targets mothers with children is not rational and it’s inhumane.”
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SOURCE: NY Times, Julia Preston