(CN) — After a federal judge ruled last week that the Trump administration must release some immigrant children from detention centers because of coronavirus risks, House Democrats are now urging the administration to swiftly release all detained children and their parents together.
On Tuesday, a group of 80 House Democrats, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called for the administration to release the families and to “commit to a permanent policy of family unity” going forward.
“Since the Covid-19 crisis started, members of Congress, advocates, attorneys, and doctors have continuously urged ICE to use its authority to release detained families,” the Democrats wrote in a letter to top officials at the Homeland Security Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Instead of releasing families, ICE has used the pandemic to implement cruel and inhumane policies toward immigrants,” the letter continued. “We call upon ICE to act with compassion and release families together.” (Emphasis in original.)
On Friday, a federal judge in California ordered ICE to release immigrant children who have been held at what the government calls “family residential centers” for more than 20 days. The order from U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, a Barack Obama appointee, came after the judge heard reports from federal court monitors that two such facilities in South Texas were “on fire” with Covid-19 cases.
The judge, who oversees a landmark 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement that governs how ICE treats immigrant children in its custody, gave the government a few options for meeting a July 17 deadline for releasing the children covered by her order, including releasing the children to sponsors or releasing them together with their detained parents.
Tuesday’s letter from House Democrats comes amid reports that three U.S. representatives from Texas were potentially exposed to Covid-19 while touring one of the family detention centers last week. The lawmakers later tested negative for the virus, the Texas Tribune reported. The Democrats referenced the incident in their letter.
“After the visit, the members of Congress raised concerns about the unsafe conditions they witnessed, and the need to immediately release families amid the pandemic,” they wrote. “Despite the heightened precautions taken at the [Dilley, Texas] facility during the visit, the members of Congress who toured the facility were exposed to an ICE officer who tested positive for Covid-19 mere days after the congressional visit.”
When asked for comment, an ICE spokesperson did not respond directly to the letter from House Democrats, but said the agency is currently reviewing the Friday order from Judge Gee.
The judge has instructed ICE to “urgently enforce” its existing pandemic-related health protocols as it works to release the children covered by Friday’s order. In particular, she urged the government to enforce social distancing, the wearing of masks and more widespread testing for staff and immigrants who enter the facilities.
Friday’s ruling was not the first time that Judge Gee has pushed the government toward releasing detained children because of the health risks of the pandemic.
The judge cited the risks of Covid-19 to children in an April order that similarly required the government to release some detained children, but Friday’s directive enhanced the urgency of the matter in setting a July 17 deadline.
Gee noted in the most recent order that while some children have been released from family detention centers, about 124 children still remained in the facilities as of early June.
“ICE is kind of in this position where the most humane thing to do is to release the parent and child together,” said Holly Cooper, an attorney for the class members covered by the Flores settlement and co-director of the UC Davis School of Law’s Immigration Law Clinic. “So that’s kind of what we’re expecting ICE to do, is to recognize, in Texas especially, the pandemic, it’s on fire.”