MANHATTAN (CN) – Upbraiding the government for its treatment of immigrant children, a federal judge called it indefensible Thursday that the Trump administration kept one teenager separated from his mother for seven months.
“I don’t understand how you could possibly justify what happened to L.V.M.,” U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty told a government attorney at a hearing that stretched for nearly five hours.
Born in El Salvador, L.V.M.’s name is shielded in court documents, and his story is a heartbreaking one. Fleeing gang violence in the country of his birth, the boy and his family found asylum in the United States. He says he never spent a night apart from his mother or had any disciplinary issues until immigration authorities detained him after interpreting a hand gesture he made in his high school hallway as a gang symbol.
It took a lawsuit earlier this year from the New York Civil Liberties Union to reunite 17-year-old L.V.M. with his family. The group is fighting now to turn L.V.M’s case into a class action.
“Your honor, the government is detaining dozens of children in its custody for an unconscionable length of time,” said NYCLU attorney Paige Austin.
Austin blamed these delays on the change in command at the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Hours after President Donald Trump named him head of the agency, Scott Lloyd issued a directive requiring his signature for children in the agency’s detention to be released. Lloyd based this decision on unspecified news reports about MS-13 gang activity, including articles based on allegations that were later discredited and dropped.
Unlike the child-welfare specialists previously in charge of resettling children, Lloyd has no formal education, training or expertise in social work.
Judge Crotty appeared disturbed by Lloyd’s impulsive decision-making.
“So far as I can gather, there was no process at all here,” Crotty said.
“This was ipse dixit,” he added, using the Latin term for a diktat that translates to “he said it himself.”
The NYCLU argues that this change in the agency’s policy is arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which requires that children placed in the agency’s custody are “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Byars defended the legality of the agency’s new pecking order.
“There’s nothing inappropriate in involving people at headquarters about these decisions,” he said.
The NYCLU argues that the new orders makes hundreds of children subject to a “bottleneck” in Washington, but Byars insisted that traffic is moving fine.
“There’s no logjam,” he claimed. “The idea that there is a logjam is based on a faulty statistic.”
Austin said that the numbers speak for themselves. Under the new regime, children remain in the system an average of 242 days, and 20 percent age out of the system before they can be reunited or resettled.
“It has become rare for children who require Lloyd’s approval to be released at all,” Austin told the judge.
Crotty noted the irony of an administration that appeared “bent on eliminating regulation” seeing fit to add regulation for detaining immigrant children. The judge made no decision on the NYCLU’s lawsuit from the bench, but he vowed to issue a written ruling soon.
Today’s proceedings fell a day after a federal judge in California gave the green light to another lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the Trump administration’s family-separation policy.