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ICE Ordered To Free Migrant Children Due to COVID-19 Concerns, Advocates Fear Family Separation

The South Texas Family Residential Center is seen in Dilley, Texas, U.S., May 15, 2018. Picture taken May 15, 2018.
Callaghan O'Hare | REUTERS
The South Texas Family Residential Center is seen in Dilley, Texas, U.S., May 15, 2018. Picture taken May 15, 2018.

This post has been updated. It was originally published on Sunday, July 5, at 2:55 p.m.

A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has until mid-July to release migrant children in family detention centers, citing COVID-19 concerns at these facilities.

Advocates say that isn’t good enough, and they’re calling on ICE to ensure they also release the children’s parents.

Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California released an order at the end of June saying that the court was not surprised that COVID-19 had reached two family residential centers in Texas. Gee also said this was something health professionals had warned all along.

According to the order, there’s no more time for half measures because these centers are “on fire.”


JudgeGee'sOrder by Texas Public Radio on Scribd

Shalyn Fluharty is with Proyecto Dilley, an organization that provides legal services to detained asylum seeking mothers and their children at the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley. Fluharty agrees with Judge Gee's assessment of these facilities and said “the house is truly on fire.”

“There are already, to our knowledge, five individuals who work at the South Texas Residential Center in Dilley who have tested positive for COVID-19,” she said.

Fluharty said at least 11 individuals — both mothers and children who are detained at another family detention center in Karnes City, Texas — have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are seeing now what we have always feared, which is that we would risk the lives of children and their parents for no other reason than locking them up, even though they’re in the United States seeking protection from harm,” said Fluharty.

An independent monitor found that, “the general medical system at the facilities appears to be appropriate for the care of children in custody, the risk of COVID-19 to minors and their families in ICE custody continues to grow.”

The independent monitor also reported that there was a “lack of consistent compliance with recommended masking among some staff” and that “distancing requirements in common eating areas elevate the risk that the virus once introduced into the facility may not be well contained.”


Independent Monitor by Texas Public Radio on Scribd

Judge Gee gave ICE until July 17 to either release children from these facilities to sponsors or release the children with their parents. But here is where it gets tricky:

Gee oversees the Flores Settlement Agreement.

The agreement is a longstanding court settlement that sets conditions under which the government can detain immigrant children, not their parents.

The Flores agreement also limits the detention of minors to what is supposed to be 20 days, but the Trump administration has been trying to get rid of this agreement in an effort to detain immigrant children and their parents indefinitely.

However, Gee said last September that the administration cannot detain children indefinitely.

Human rights advocates, like Kennji Kizuka with Human Rights First, said ICE has the ability to release families together.

“All along the government has had the authority to release families, children and parents together, under existing parole authority, under the law and the regulations,” he said. “They’re choosing not to release those families.”

Back in May, ICE called some of the parents they represent into rooms and presented them with what Fluharty and others call a “binary choice.” She said ICE used a form and asked the parents if they wanted their child to be released to a sponsor or remain detained with them indefinitely.

“That question in and of itself sent our parents and children spiraling,” said Fluharty. “I mean, there are stories of children who, for days, were crying nonstop at the facility because they thought they were going to be separated from their moms.”


Parole Determination Document by Texas Public Radio on Scribd

ICE said in a press release that at the end of April, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued an order that directed ICE to “make every effort to promptly and safely release juvenile aliens who have suitable custodians and who are not a flight risk or a danger to themselves or others.”

The agency said they checked in with the minors and their parents to make individual parole determinations. ICE said they interviewed nearly 300 individuals and used a form that was developed almost three years ago to comply with that order.

“They wanted me to sign a paper,” said a mother who’s been detained at the Dilley facility with her daughter for about 10 months.

The mother is referring to the document ICE presented her with in May that asked if she wanted her daughter to be released with a sponsor or to remain in detention with her.

She didn’t want her name used because she fears speaking out will get her and her daughter in trouble with ICE.

“We’re scared that they’ll release our children and leave us in here,” she said.

She said she and other mothers at the facility hope ICE releases them and their children together.

Her daughter has asthma and has difficulty breathing, and she said there’s no one better to take care of her daughter than her.

Fluharty, with Proyecto Dilley, said the parents they represent at Dilley are worried about what will happen to their children.

“This looming question of whether or not children will once again be ripped apart from their parents is a question that everyone should be up at night thinking about and certainly there is no one who is feeling more alarmed, panicked, or more anxiety than both the parents and the children,” Fluharty said.

Acting Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, appeared on Fox News Monday.

He said this latest order to release migrant children from detention is one of a number of court cases they are dealing with and they have no plans for any mass release of migrants.

“At the end of the day we’re not, as some courts have asked us to do and some advocates have asked us to do, is to let everyone out of ICE detention facilities, said Wolf. “That’s about 25,000 folks. We’re not going to do a jailbreak. That’s not what we do.”

Eighty House Democrats and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter last week to Wolf, calling on him and ICE to release the families and seek alternatives to family detention.

“We know the Administration has a history of separating thousands of children from their parents. Family separation should never be this country’s policy,” said the letter. “Medical organizations have long stated that the practice creates extraordinary harm to children. Detention of children for any amount of time, even with their parents, causes physical harm and irreparable trauma.”

ICE said in a statement that it’s currently reviewing Judge Gee’s order.

The agency said in a release that it recently completed voluntary COVID-19 tests for all 278 immigrants detained at the three family residential centers in the U.S. and that the results came back negative except for 14 people at a facility in Karnes City.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

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Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos