LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge in Los Angeles said Friday the risk of Covid-19 spreading in immigrant detention facilities requires the government to adhere to a longstanding settlement requiring prompt release of immigrant youth from custody.
The landmark 1997 Flores settlement sets national standards for the detention, release and treatment of all immigrant children in federal custody, such as requiring their release to guardians or placement in facilities within 5 to 20 days of detention.
Youths who have sponsors should be released to them without unnecessary delay, unless they’re deemed flight risks, or released to state-licensed care facilities, according to the settlement.
But detention settings amid the coronavirus outbreak places immigrant youths at risk of exposure to the virus, attorneys for class members of the settlement said in March 26 ex parte papers seeking a preliminary injunction allowing for immediate release of the youth.
The motion said youths held in congregate settings are exposed to “the clear and present danger the Covid-19 pandemic poses to their safety and well-being.”
The fact that immigrant youths detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement can’t practice physical distancing guidelines established by health experts is a violation of the settlement, attorneys for children said in briefs.
The spread of Covid-19 in facilities for immigrant youth is not speculative, the attorneys said, adding that detained children in ORR’s MercyFirst and Abbott House facilities in New York have been infected.
U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee said in a March 28 order that the federal government had not done enough to ensure detained youth were safe from infection and that agencies failed to promptly release immigrant children from facilities in light of the pandemic.
“The severity of the harm to which plaintiffs are exposed and the public’s interest in preventing outbreaks of Covid-19 among families and children in ICE or ORR custody that will infect ICE and ORR staff, spread to others in geographic proximity, and likely overwhelm local healthcare systems tips the balance of equities sharply in plaintiffs’ favor,” the order states.
Citing pandemic-related travel restrictions, social-distancing guidelines and the risk of spreading infection in sponsors’ homes, Gee stopped short of ordering en masse release of immigrant children from federal custody.
Gee extended her order on April 10, saying the federal government should continue efforts to release youth and justify any unnecessary delays.
Under the order, the federal government provided records of their efforts to place detained youth in the custody of suitable sponsors.
In a verbal order during a telephonic hearing Friday and issued in writing later in the day, Gee said she would convert the preliminary injunction motion into a motion to enforce the Flores settlement, specifically provisions governing safe and sanitary conditions of facilities and prompt release of children to their sponsors.
“But I want to remind everyone, for 23 years we’ve had the Flores settlement. It’s a consent decree and a permanent injunction,” Gee said Friday. “It doesn’t make sense to have a preliminary injunction. We’re not going to have a trial on the merits. We have an agreement I’m going to be able to enforce.”
Under Gee’s Friday order, ORR must release class members who have an immediate relative — or relatives through legal marriage — or other sponsor that can care for them, known as category 2B and 3 sponsors.
For immigrant children in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, Gee ordered all class members be released to guardians in every category of relatives or sponsor.
Due to pandemic-related business closures, the government can temporarily place children with sponsors who’ve undergone basic background checks instead of the more intensive checks that require fingerprint scanning at brick-and-mortar businesses.