Judge Orders Release of Immigrant Children Detained by U.S.


Residents lined up for lunch at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley in May. The center was built in December 2014 to hold  up to 2,400 undocumented women and children detained while attempting to cross the border with Mexico. Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

Residents lined up for lunch at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley in May. The center was built in December 2014 to hold up to 2,400 undocumented women and children detained while attempting to cross the border with Mexico. Credit Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

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 polices 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 25­page 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. Officials did not comment immediately
on the new ruling.

Judge Gee’s decision was based on the 18­year­old settlement in a hardfought
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.”

The detention of the mothers and children has drawn furious criticism
from immigrant advocates and religious and Latino groups, who have called
on the administration to shut the detention centers down.

Since last summer’s surge, Homeland Security officials opened detention
centers in Texas in Dilley and Karnes City, in addition to a small family center
already operating in Berks County, Pa. As of June 30, about 2,600 women and
children were held in the three centers, officials said.

Initially, Homeland Security officials said they were detaining the families
to send a message to others in Central America to deter them from coming to
the United States illegally. In February, a federal court in Washington, D.C.,
ruled that strategy unconstitutional. Officials stopped invoking deterrence as a
factor in deciding whether to release mothers and children as they seek asylum
in the United States.

But many women and children remained stalled behind bleak walls and
fences month after month with no end in sight. Mothers became severely
depressed or anxious, and their distress echoed in their children, who became
worried and sickly.

Under the Flores settlement, officials were required to try first to release a
child to a parent, legal guardian or close relative. Judge Gee concluded that if
the mother was also detained, Homeland Security officials should release her
with the child, as long as she did not present a flight or security risk. She gave
the administration until Aug. 3 to devise a plan to release children and
mothers “without unnecessary delay.”

For children who could not be released, the Flores agreement required
officials to place them in nonsecure facilities run by agencies licensed for child

On June 24, Mr. Johnson announced changes to shorten the length of
stay for most women and children in the centers. The pace of releases picked
up, and more than 150 women and children were freed in one week alone in
early July. Officials argued in recent court filings that Judge Gee was ruling on
practices no longer in place.

Advocates disagreed.

“This decision confirms that the mass detention of refugee children and
their mothers violates U.S. law,” said Elora Mukherjee, a law professor at
Columbia University who with her students has represented women at the
Texas detention centers. “Prolonging their detention even a single day in light
of this decision would be illegal.”