HOUSTON (AP) – A federal judge on Friday ordered the release of children held with their parents in United States (US) immigration jails and denounced the Trump administration’s prolonged detention of families during the coronavirus pandemic.
US District Judge Dolly Gee’s order applies to children held for more than 20 days at three family detention centres in Texas and Pennsylvania operated by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 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 July 17 for children to either be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors.
The family detention centres “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures,” she wrote.
Gee’s order said 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.
Gee’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 on Friday.
But most parents last month refused to designate a sponsor when ICE officials unexpectedly asked them who could take their children if the adults remained detained, according to lawyers for the families.
The agency said then it was conducting a “routine parole review consistent with the law” and Gee’s previous orders.