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Judge rules against family detention policy

Children walk to class at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
Children walk to class at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

A federal judge ruled Friday night that the Obama administration can no longer lock up children with their mothers who say they're fleeing violence in their home countries.

In a highly anticipated decision, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Central California found that the administration family detention policy violates an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children.

"It is astonishing that Defendants have enacted a policy requiring such expensive infrastructure without more evidence to show that it would be compliant with an Agreement that has been in effect for nearly 20 years or effective at achieving what Defendants hoped it would accomplish," Gee wrote.

Federal officials are expected to appeal. The administration currently detains about 1,700 parents and children at three family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas and Berks County, Pa.

It is astonishing that Defendants have enacted a policy requiring such expensive infrastructure without more evidence to show that it would be compliant with an Agreement that has been in effect for nearly 20 years or effective at achieving what Defendants hoped it would accomplish.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee

The judge’s official order is largely in line with a confidential draft ruling she delivered in April that found children, even with their mothers, cannot be held in secure facilities such as those in the towns of Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. It also states it's inappropriate to hold a child and accompanying parent unless there is a flight or safety risk.

The ruling comes after months of high level talks between Department of Justice officials and lawyers for the mothers failed to come up with a revised agreement.

While immigration lawyers have sought to end the practice of family detention, justice officials have argued they need greater flexibility to respond to future migration emergencies like last year’s surge of nearly 70,000 parents and children who had fled Central America.

1,700 parents and children remain detained at three family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas and Berks County, Pa.

In recent months, the administration has sought to rein in the program, which has been the subject of intense public scrutiny. This spring, federal officials promised to improve conditions for the detained mothers and children. In June, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced federal authorities would end long-term detentions of families. This month, federal officials began releasing hundreds of detained mothers and children who had demonstrated they have reason to fear persecution if returned to their home countries.

The judge cited the "reforms" in her order, but said voluntary compliance doesn’t prevent the federal government from reverting back to the violating practice in the future.

"If Defendants are trying to argue that the intervening reforms render the case moot, then Defendants are incorrect,” she wrote.

She has given the federal government until Aug. 3 to show why she shouldn’t implement several measures to enforce the order. They include blocking federal officials from continuing to detain mothers and children at two large family detention centers in Texas.

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