Comparing the threat of coronavirus to fire tearing through a house, a federal judge on Friday ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release minors who have been held in family detention facilities for more than 20 days by July 17.
The centers that hold families “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures,” wrote U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee.
Given the growing severity of the outbreak in the Texas counties where several facilities are located, the federal agency must make “renewed and more vigorous efforts” to move children to non-congregate facilities, Gee wrote. Eleven people who are detained in Karnes County tested positive for COVID-19 as well as four employees at another facility in Frio County.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement can now release minors to suitable sponsors or to other non-congregate facilities, or, at the agency’s discretion, it can also release the children’s parents to care for them, the order said. As of June 7, there were 124 kids in family detention centers run by the agency.
Citing reports by an independent monitor and a Stanford pediatrician that safety precautions such as masking and social distancing were “spotty” or absent, the court wrote that it was “not surprised” that the coronavirus had breached the gates of the family detention centers. It ordered facilities to “urgently enforce” such precautions and expand use of testing for employees, residents and new arrivals.
The order includes some exceptions; children can remain in a family center beyond 20 days if their parent waives their right to be released, if a suitable sponsor cannot be identified, or if the federal agency provides a specific explanation of why the child is a flight risk, such as an unexplained failure to appear at a previous court date.
In the past, the agency has provided only “cursory explanations” of why it deemed children ineligible for release, justifications the ruling characterized as “incomplete, infrequent, and at times, inaccurate.”
Megan Conn can be reached at [email protected].