9th Circ. Blasts Feds for Jailing Young Refugees

     (CN) — President Barack Obama’s immigration authorities must respect a 19-year-old settlement protecting undocumented children, regardless of whether the minor entered the United States with their parents, the Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday.
     The ruling provides some relief to children locked up two years ago while fleeing strife in Central America, but at the same time it strips protections for their undocumented parents.     
     Peter Schey, the executive director from the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said he hopes the ruling “convinces the Obama administration that its policy of detaining immigrant mothers and children is inhumane and illegal and must come to an end.”
     “During the past two years this administration has wasted over one hundred million dollars unnecessarily detaining thousands of refugee children commingled with unrelated adults in unlicensed secure facilities in violation of well-established child detention standards,” wrote Schey, who served as lead counsel in the case. “This disgraceful policy should now be brought to an end by President Obama.”
     The case of Flores v. Lynch first began with a different lead defendant: then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
     Lead plaintiff Jenny Lisette Flores was 15 years old when she fled the civil war in her native El Salvador. Authorities arrested Flores near San Ysidro, California, in 1985.
     She spent months in a detention center in Pasadena, enduring strip searches in a lock-up that also held adult inmates.
     A year later, Flores wound up being one of four named plaintiffs who sued the government in drawn-out litigation.
     More than a decade later, the government entered into a 1997 settlement setting out a “nationwide policy for the detention, release, and treatment of minors in the custody of the INS,”      the acronym for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
     Congress abolished that agency five years later, in post-9/11 legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
     As humanitarian crises in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala brought tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Obama administration responded by erecting so-called family detention centers in Texas and New Mexico.
     In a class action against Attorney General Loretta Lynch last year, children detained in those centers claimed that the facilities violated the Flores settlement.
     The Obama administration’s lawyers tried to carve out an exception to that agreement for minors who are accompanied by their parents, but Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz resoundingly rejected that rationale for a unanimous Ninth Circuit.
     “The government has not explained why the detention claims class would exclude accompanied minors; minors who arrive with their parents are as desirous of education and recreation, and as averse to strip searches, as those who come alone,” he wrote in a scathing 23-page opinion.
     Circuit Judges Ronald Gould and Michael Melloy — who sat by designation from the Eighth Circuit — joined the opinion, which overrules the lower court in one important respect.
     Though the original settlement had no protections for undocumented adults, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee found that ICE’s alleged “no-release” policy for Central Americans “cannot be reconciled with the agreement’s grant to class members of a right to preferential release to a parent.”
     In the Ninth Circuit’s view, Gee should have hewn closer to the letter of the settlement.
     “The fact that the settlement grants class members a right to preferential release to a parent over others does not mean that the government must also make a parent available; it simply means that, if available, a parent is the first choice,” Hurwitz wrote.
     All of the judges rejected the Obama administration’s attempt to amend the settlement.
     The Department of Justice and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.