LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge on Friday tentatively denied the Trump administration’s attempt to indefinitely detain immigrant children through a rollback of a long-standing agreement governing custody conditions for youth detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The landmark 1997 Flores settlement agreement sets national standards for the detention, release and treatment of all undocumented children in federal custody. It requires immigrant children be released to guardians or placed in facilities within 5 to 20 days of detention, and facilities must be “the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs.”
The Trump administration moved to terminate the agreement by issuing new rules for detention conditions for children picked up at the border.
Attorneys for the government have said the agreement has fueled a surge in crossings at the border.
At a hearing Friday in Los Angeles federal court, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee rejected the government’s attempt to implement the new rule and said that only Congress can overturn the agreement.
“I’m not sure how you can say that the new regulations are not inconsistent with the Flores agreement,” Gee told Justice Department attorney August Flentje. “Just because you tell me it’s night doesn’t mean it’s not day. It is certainly within your rights to seek relief from Congress. They can repeal this consent decree.”
Flentje told Gee that the new rule on immigrant youth detention is not inconsistent with the long-standing Flores agreement, which he argued violates federal rule-making procedure.
The rule would have allowed the Department of Homeland Security to detain immigrant youth travelling with relatives or guardians for as long it takes to resolve their immigration cases. The rule would also allow the government to place immigrant youth in facilities not licensed to house children.
Carlos Holguin, an attorney for detained children, told reporters outside the courthouse that the Trump administration can only issue new regulations that comply with the Flores agreement.
“The court basically indicated that this is a straight-ahead contract issue, that the government has made a deal and must live up to its deal,” Holguin said. “In practical terms, what this means is that children who arrive in the United States as part of family units will still have a right to be released to their other relatives in the U.S. who might be able to take care of them.”
Under the Flores agreement, the government must place children in state-licensed care facilities within 20 days and can only delay placement if an immigration judge deems a child a flight risk or a danger to others.
Flentje declined to comment after the hearing. But Holguin said he expects the government to appeal Gee’s final ruling. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who filed a separate challenge to the plans to back out of the agreement, blasted the Trump administration’s effort to get out of the agreement in a statement Friday.
“It’s already clear that the Trump administration has little regard for the basic human rights of children who have been kept in federal custody without access to necessities like soap or a place to sleep. We applaud the plaintiffs for putting a stop to the new regulations,” Becerra said.
The White House did not respond to an emailed request for comment by press time.
Gee issued her written permanent injunction shortly after the hearing. In it, she said “the court is not unsympathetic to the challenges that Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services employees face in executing our country’s immigration policies.
“But the evidentiary record before this court overwhelmingly shows that throughout several presidential administrations, the agreement has been necessary, relevant, and critical to the public interest in maintaining standards for the detention and release of minors arriving at the United States’ borders,” Gee wrote. “Defendants willingly negotiated and bound themselves to these standards for all minors in its custody, and no final regulations or changed circumstances yet merit termination of the Flores agreement.”
She concluded by noting the agreement is a contract, a “final, binding judgment that has never been appealed.”
“The blessing or the curse – depending on one’s vantage point – of a binding contract is its certitude,” she wrote.