Judge Tells Agencies to Speed Up Release of Young Immigrants

Children detained at a migrant processing center in McAllen, Texas, on July 13, 2019. Photo courtesy of the office of U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui

Move aims to protect unaccompanied youths from spreading coronavirus

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. government has violated its legal obligation to speedily release unaccompanied immigrant children from federal custody and reunify them with relatives or other suitable guardians, a district judge in California ruled late Friday. 

Advocates hailed the ruling to free the children from the contagion hazards of group facilities, which one medical professional described as leaving them in a burning house.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee issued the order requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Office of Refugee Resettlement to “make every effort to promptly and safely release” immigrant minors. 

“Under the current extraordinary circumstances in the midst of a pandemic, ORR’s obligation to release minors without unnecessary delay requires moving with greater speed to remove minors from congregate environments where a suitable custodian exists,” the court ruled.

In New York, at least six youth in ORR facilities have tested positive for coronavirus, ProPublica reported earlier this month. But in other congregate facilities, the investigative news outlet found the number is much higher: At least 42 children in centers run by the Heartland Alliance have tested positive for COVID-19, primarily at a single facility in Chicago.

Friday’s ruling is a response to a motion to enforce the longstanding Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 agreement governing the circumstances under which immigrant minors can be detained. The motion was filed last month by the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Youth Law, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic.

In Friday’s ruling, the federal court states that the agencies must also release minors who have a pending asylum case or an order of removal. Gee noted that appeals of such orders can take months to decide and cited six children who have been detained in New York for at least 68 days while appealing an order of removal, according to the declaration of an attorney with the nonprofit legal firm, Kids in Need of Defense.

The ruling also orders the refugee resettlement agency to release minors to relatives or others whose background investigation show no red flags without waiting for fingerprinting to be complete, given that the offices where they would get their fingerprints have closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The federal Children’s Bureau, which oversees nonmigrant children in foster care, recently approved a similar change, allowing fingerprinting to be completed at a later date.

The court reiterated the importance of quickly releasing minors from congregate facilities by quoting the testimony of Dr. Julie DeAun Graves: “Postponing the release of children in facilities with known COVID-19 exposure is like leaving them in a burning house rather than going in to rescue them and take them to safety.”

Megan Conn can be reached at mconn@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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