Judge Orders ICE to Release Immigrant Children Amid Viral Pandemic

(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

(CN) — In response to worsening health conditions inside ICE facilities resulting from Covid-19, a California judge has ordered the agency to release immigrant children who have been held for more than 20 days.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, an Obama appointee, has recently heard reports from federal court monitors that are assisting the judge in carrying out a landmark 1997 settlement that set national standards for the detention, release and treatment of all immigrant children in federal custody detail.

The reports, which detail worsening health conditions inside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities and unnecessary delays in granting sponsors approval to receive youth in their homes, led the judge Friday night to order the agency to release immigrant children who have been held for more than 20 days in ICE Family Residential Centers.

The Central District of California judge said that recent health developments inside the facilities justify this move, even if some strides have been made in safeguarding and reducing the populations of ICE detainees.

“Although progress has been made, the Court is not surprised that COVID19 has arrived at both the FRCs and ORR facilities, as health professionals have warned all along that individuals living in congregate settings are more vulnerable to the virus,” Gee wrote in Friday’s order.

The judge notes that as of June 25, at least 11 people detained at a facility in Karnes City, Texas, have been diagnosed with the coronavirus while another facility in South Texas has seen at least four employees test positive. These are potentially dire developments in the spread of Covid-19 in ICE detention facilities, with the reports noting that the FRCs are “on fire” and that half measures are simply no longer going to cut it.

Documents show that these challenges also relate to how the Office of Refugee Resettlement has managed youth sponsor approval, with arguments being made that they maintain an onerous approval chain for a sponsor to obtain a fingerprinting waiver. This process, according to documents, may result in the extended detention of an individual who may otherwise be releasable under the Reno v. Flores settlement.

In light of these developments, Gee has ordered that the children who have resided at an FRCs for more than 20 days are to be moved to non-congregate settings by one of two ways.

The first is that ICE can release minors to available and suitable sponsors, or potentially other non-congregate settings that are available and Covid-19-free, provided that there is consent from their adult guardians or parents.

The second is that ICE can also release the minors with their guardians or parents themselves in the event that the agency orders, or another court determines, that the conditions at their respective facilities justify the transfer of those adults to other non-congregate settings while they go through legal proceedings.

This is not the first time that Gee has issued directives at ICE in response to their handling of Covid-19 in their detention facilities. In April, Gee ruled that children held by the agency who have an immediate relative — or relatives through legal marriage — or other sponsor that can care for were to be released.

While the judge has ordered ICE to follow these guidelines as deliberately and safely as possible, she also directs the agency to ensure that while these plans are being implemented, it does everything they can to ensure the safety of their detainees.

“While the above should be undertaken with all deliberate speed, in the meantime, ICE must also urgently implement the protocols recommended by the CDC, rather than hiding behind unevenly implemented written protocols, in order to comply with its obligation to provide safe and sanitary conditions for Class Members,” Gee wrote.

Gee said that this starts with social distancing. According to the order, ICE should ensure that all of the available space within FRCs need to be utilized to their fullest potential to ensure safe social distancing guidelines, and that living quarters, bathroom facilities and eating areas should be made compatible with proper social distancing protocols.

The judge said that bathing and eating schedules, as well as spaced residential assignments, should also be carried out as quickly as possible to promote safe social distance among detainees.

Gee said that masking and testing also need to be integral parts of how ICE conducts itself while it follows Friday’s directive.

She recommends that masking protocols need to be reinforced at all possible times, potentially some that may include increased ICE staff training, and that more testing opportunities need to be taken advantage of to help manage the spread of a dangerous and easily spreadable virus.

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