LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge approved a settlement between immigrant advocates and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to provide safe and sanitary housing for minors at border facilities in Texas.
The settlement resolves a row prompted three years ago by the humanitarian crisis at border stations in the CBP's El Paso and Rio Grande Valley sectors, where children were housed for weeks on end in deplorable conditions in makeshift jails, without access to soap, clean water, showers, clean clothing, toilets, toothbrushes, adequate nutrition or adequate sleep.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who has been overseeing implementation of the landmark 1997 Flores settlement regarding detention of minors by federal agencies, on Friday approved the new settlement with CBP that calls for treatment of minors in its custody with dignity, respect and with special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors.
"It's been a long time coming," the judge said. "Hopefully by next year we'll have some positive reports how these changes have been implemented."
The settlement calls for the placement of children in juvenile priority facilities, where they will be given, among other things, access to toilets and showers, age-appropriate meals and snacks, adequate heating and ventilation, medical evaluations and treatment, clothing and blankets, caregivers and adequate supervision to protect minors from others.
Children who were apprehended at the border with adult family members will remain with these where it is feasible, and if it isn't, they'll have contact with their family members while in CBP custody.
"After three years of negotiations we were pleased today that federal judge Dolly Gee gave final approval to a comprehensive settlement that will substantially improve the conditions of detention for minors in border patrol custody," said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and the lead attorney representing detained minors in the Flores case. "The settlement will result in unaccompanied minors being promptly turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement which will then take steps to reunite them with family members living in the U.S. Children accompanied by parents will be promptly released from Border Patrol custody rather than being turned over to ICE for further detention."
In most cases children will not be separated from their parents as happened under the Trump administration, according to Schey.
The Flores settlement was a major obstacle to President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy for immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico illegally. It resulted in the ill-fated separation of thousands children from their families at the border in 2018 because, unlike their parents or other adult family members, they couldn't be detained. A federal judge subsequently ordered the government to reunite the children and their families.
In 2019, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, backed by other immigrant rights groups and pro bono attorneys, asked Judge Gee to issue a temporary restraining order to force CBP to address the conditions under which children where detained in its facilities in Texas.
According to a pediatrician who visited Ursula, the largest CBP detention center in McAllen, Texas, and who examined the children there, "the conditions within which children are held could be compared to torture facilities," the Center for Human Rights said at the time. "That is, extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”
These conditions in which the children were detained not only endangered their health and welfare, according to the Center for Human Rights, it also undermined their human dignity and violated their human rights.
Sarah Fabian, an attorney with the Justice Department who for years defended the Trump administration's draconian immigration policies in court, said at Friday's hearing that CBP was standing by to start implementing the terms of the agreement.
"We're ready to get going as soon as your order is issued," Fabian told the judge.Follow @edpettersson
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.