The Obama administration is being taken back to court again over detaining mothers and children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
Lawyers for the detained families filed a motion with the U.S. District Court of Central District of California on Tuesday night charging the administration with violating a federal judge’s ruling last summer that prohibits children from being detained – even with their mothers – in jail-like facilities for more time than it takes to process and release them to family members.
“Defendants have consistently violated the Settlement since the summer of 2014 and this Court’s Orders since August 2015,” Peter Schey, wrote in a court filing. “Their conduct is lawless and contemptuous.”
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles found that the Obama administration's family detention policy violates an 18-year-old court settlement regarding the detention of migrant children. She gave the government until Oct. 23 to comply with her order that required officials release children within five days. She provided an exception that allows officials to hold families for about three weeks under exceptional circumstances like the 2014 border surge of nearly 70,000 families from Central America.
The administration currently operates three family detention centers – in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
The court filing is only the latest in the family detention saga to cast a shadow on the Obama administration since resurrecting the controversial detention policy because of the surge.
The United States is worried enough about violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that it is expanding the refugee program for vulnerable migrants. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security continues to detain and deport families – many of whom have requested asylum because of the violence – to those same countries.
Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 337,117 people. Of those, 43,564 were from El Salvador, 57,160 from Guatemala and 33,848 nationals from Honduras.
DHS spokeswoman Marsha Catron said the administration will respond to the motion.
“DHS is complying with the terms of the agreement and the Court's August order even as we appeal that ruling,” she said.
In January, the Obama administration filed an appeal saying Gee’s ruling wrongfully expanded a nearly two-decade-old agreement on the detention of children by ruling that it also protected migrant children who were traveling with their parents. Oral arguments are scheduled in June.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Leon Fresco argued in the government’s filing that the original agreement was intended to “settle a lawsuit involving only unaccompanied minors.”
“Nothing in the Agreement indicates that the Government intended to unilaterally surrender its statutory detention authority over accompanied alien minors and their adult alien parents,” Fresco wrote.
In Tuesday’s court filing, Schey argued that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “wholly failed” to meet even minimal standards of the settlement. Children continue to be detained in “deplorable” facilities without adequate food and bathrooms, not advised of their rights and obstructed from their right to counsel, he wrote.
“It is obviously not the case that ICE must detain families together to keep them together,” Schey wrote.
The managing attorney representing mothers at the Karnes facility, Manoj Govindaiah, director of Family Detention Services at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said they’ve seen first hand how the government won’t comply with the Flores decision, but their efforts have been insufficient.
“The only way to comply with Judge Gee's ruling is to end family detention,” he said.
Schey has asked the court to order the Department of Homeland Security to comply with the settlement and appoint a special monitor to oversee DHS’s compliance.