LOS ANGELES (CN) - A federal judge indicated Friday she is likely to deny the Trump administration’s effort to dismiss a lawsuit by detained immigrant and asylum-seeking children who say that detention centers are compromising their health, blocking legal assistance and violating their due process rights.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee is also expected to approve class certification for the group of children who are seeking prompt release from detention, according to an attorney for the plaintiffs who viewed the judge's tentative ruling at a hearing in federal court in Los Angeles.
Department of Justice attorneys argued in court papers that Lucas R. vs Alex Azar should be dismissed because California is an improper venue for claims to be heard since only class members of the 1997 Flores settlement agreement who reside in the district can enforce the settlement.
Under the Flores settlement, children in federal custody must be released to relatives or other custodians or placed in facilities within 20 days. Facilities housing the children must be “the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs.”
Government attorneys argued that the case transferred to the District of Columbia because California is not the site of any “substantial” event outlined in the plaintiffs’ claims, according to court papers.
Attorneys also said class members should file claims in the states they reside in, not in federal court in California, or direct their attorneys to alter the Flores agreement.
The proposed class of children has said that the Office of Refugee Resettlement blocks their access to attorneys, gives them psychotropic drugs without familial consent and discriminates against children with disabilities.
The class claims that due process requires that the agency give them meaningful notice and an opportunity to respond before it places them in medical facilities since non-consensual treatment “exacerbates mental health issues” and can result in children being consigned to psychiatric hospitals.
The exact size of the proposed class is unknown, but likely includes hundreds of children.
Leecia Welch, an attorney for the children at the National Center for Youth Law, said in an interview that the denial of the Trump administration’s motion to dismiss the case would be a “major victory” for the children.
“Our case is about ensuring children can enforce their rights to be released to their families and ensure that they have due process protections,” Welch said. “[Detained children] should be released promptly and not be allowed to wither in government custody without recourse.”
Welch said class members detained at both the Shiloh Residential Treatment Center in Texas and the detention facility for immigrant children in Tornillo, Texas near the Mexican border, are being told that the processing of their fingerprint data is delaying their release.
“The fact that the Trump administration can't do that promptly and that children are languishing in tent cities in the desert is an outrage,” Welch said.
Lead plaintiff Lucas R., a 13-year-old Guatemalan boy, has been released after months of being detained at Shiloh, according to Welch.
In a sworn statement, Lucas said agency staff at the Hacienda del Sol facility in Youngtown, Arizona had given him psychotropic drugs without his consent. He was later transferred to Shiloh without notice or an opportunity to appeal.
Also on Friday, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Flores case filed a motion to enforce the 21-year-old settlement and to hold the various members of the Trump administration responsible for carrying out the agreement in contempt due to their anticipated breach of the agreement. The motion comes in response to the government's announcement this past September of new rules on the handling of detained immigrant children which the administration claims will trigger the sunset provision of the Flores settlement.
“Defendants’ regulations, however, transparently are not consistent with the terms of the settlement and fail to implement the settlement. Instead, the proposed rule eviscerates class members’ rights under the settlement,” the motion states. “Under the proposed rule, DHS would have carte blanche to detain children indefinitely in secure, unlicensed facilities even when perfectly qualified family members, adults designated by parents, and licensed group homes are available to care for them as permitted by the settlement.”
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