A federal judge on Friday censured the way the government of President Donald Trump has handled the detention of immigrant children and families, ordering him to provide detailed information to the court about his plans to release them promptly due to the coronavirus.
Federal Judge Dolly M. Gee ordered the government to improve its explanation of why it has not released some of the approximately 350 parents and minors in three family detention centers.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE) has come under heavy criticism for allegedly asking detained parents if they would allow their children to be released without them.
Parents at all three facilities – one in Pennsylvania and two in Texas – were asked during brief meetings if sponsors were available to care for their children, attorneys representing families said last week. Then they were asked to sign a form.
ICE has declined to release it.
Gee wrote that he did not find that ICE officially sought to get those formal waivers, but that the officers’ conversations with the detained parents “caused unnecessary emotional turmoil and confusion, and did not appear to serve the agency’s legitimate purpose of making ongoing individualized related consultations. with the actions to release the minors ”.
Although some parents reported slightly different details, the attorneys noted that parents generally believed they were being asked to choose between staying in custody with their children or letting the children leave.
“They were asking mothers to part with their 1-year-old children to go with a sponsor who may have never met or known the child,” said Bridget Cambria, executive director of the ALDEA group, which represents families in the center of ICE arrest in Leesport, Pennsylvania.
The Trump administration has again faced accusations that it is trying to separate immigrant families as part of its measures to strengthen border security. The separation of immigrant families was censored by both parties in 2018 when the Trump government launched a “zero tolerance” policy for crossings at the southern border.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service accused immigrant advocates of making “misrepresentations,” and said it continues to abide by Trump’s 2018 executive order to end the separation of families. In a statement, the agency said Thursday that the form was used as part of a “routine review of parole in accordance with the law” and with Gee’s previous orders.
“The court recognized that parents, not the government, must decide whether the children should be released to a sponsor,” the agency noted. “To comply with this order, ICE was required to verify each of the minors – and their parents – in custody … to make individual provisional release determinations regarding those minors.”
In documents filed with the court on May 15, the government stressed more than 170 times that it had refused to release the children who are still detained because the “father does not want separation.” Without giving details, the government considered that many minors could flee.
Gee on Friday asked the government and activists to design a new process to determine if the families can be released.
The judge oversees a court settlement known as the Flores Settlement, which controls how the United States is supposed to treat migrant children in its custody.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the United States government has banned families and children from seeking asylum. It has expelled hundreds of children within days of crossing the border from Mexico instead of handing them over to government facilities designed to care for them, something that federal law requires.
The agency says it releases most families from their detention centers within 20 days, the general limit set forth in the Flores agreement regarding the detention of a minor in a secure facility.
However, many families currently in custody remain in detention for months, some since last year.
Activists argue that ICE should release all families, especially due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus in immigration detention centers, where more than 1,100 people have been infected and about 50% of the tests have given positive. At the largest ICE family detention center in Dilley, Texas, detainees include a boy with epilepsy, a 1-year-old baby with respiratory problems, and several children with heart murmurs, according to Shalyn Fluharty, director of the legal group Project Dilley .
ICE claims that it has released hundreds of people it considered to be highly exposed to the virus, although it has challenged lawsuits across the country demanding the release of others.
The Trump administration is also appealing last year’s Gee order that prevents him from ending the Flores deal.
Associated Press journalist Astrid Galvan contributed to this report in Phoenix.