Federal officials will fight for their right to continue to lock up mothers and children in family detention centers.
The Justice Department filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday after a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration must release thousands of detained children with their mothers, who say they’re fleeing violence in their home countries.
The Department of Homeland Security did not file an emergency stay of the judge’s ruling, however. Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement Friday that the department is complying with the August ruling that limits the amount of time families can be held. He said the department is turning the government’s three family residential centers into short-term “processing centers,” where individuals can be interviewed instead of detained for prolonged periods. Nonetheless, he has ordered lawyers to appeal the ruling.
“We disagree with portions of the legal reasoning in the decision and have filed a notice of appeal preserving our ability to challenge those portions,” Johnson said. “But we remain committed to reforming our family residential center policies, as we have been doing for the past several months.”
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles ruled last month that the Obama administration’s family detention policy violates an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children.
The government will ask the court to throw out the ruling based on the Justice Department’s original motions that the 1997 agreement, known as Flores v. Meese, doesn’t apply to children accompanied by their parents. Or, at least, that it should be modified, arguing that the circumstances, including the surge of tens of thousands of migrants, have changed so greatly that the government couldn’t comply with the settlement and also protect public safety.
“It has become clear that it is impossible to mandate full and strict compliance with all terms of the nearly two-decades-old agreement while expecting DHS to fulfill its core function of protecting the public safety and enforcing U.S. immigration laws,” Joyce R. Branda, then an acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Division, wrote in the government’s February motion.
Earlier, Judge Gee’s July 24 ruling delivered a significant blow to the Obama administration’s policy of detaining mothers and children who say they’re fleeing violence in their home countries. In a 25-page ruling, Gee said she found it “astonishing” that immigration authorities had adopted a policy requiring such an expensive infrastructure without more evidence that it would be compliant with the decades-old agreement.
The Obama administration is currently holding an estimated 2,450 parents and children at three detention facilities, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania.
The facilities have been the subject of intense public and media scrutiny. There have been allegations of poor conditions and mistreatment. But Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials say the detainees are well cared for.
Advocates fighting family detention criticized the decision to appeal.
“Secretary Johnson’s statement today is proof positive that DHS plans to continue detaining Central American families, despite last month’s court order by Judge Gee,” said Joane Lin, ACLU legislative counsel. “Today’s statement dispels any hope that the Obama administration will end family detention on its own, or the practice of placing families in expedited removal.”