Advocates applaud court orders to release detained families

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A federal judge ruled July 24 that the government’s immigrant family detention system violates a settlement agreement dating to 1997 over how juveniles in the custody of the immigration agency are treated.

Advocates for the thousands of families being held in compounds run by for-profit prison companies hailed the ruling and said it should mean the end of the policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to lock up families while they pursue asylum and other types of protection from deportation.

Judge Dolly Gee of the Central California District Court found ICE violated a court settlement reached in 1997 with a strategy enacted last summer of detaining women and their children as a deterrent to others who might try to cross the U.S. border at Mexico. The Obama administration was given until Aug. 3 to officially respond.

The detention centers have been harshly criticized by attorneys, members of Congress and advocates such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB and the Center for Migration Studies issued a scathing report in May based on bishops’ visits to two family detention centers in Texas. It decried conditions and recommended dismantling the whole system, replacing it with less drastic ways of keeping track of immigrants who are awaiting the outcome of legal cases.

More than 55,000 families were among a surge of Central American immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border last summer. Along with 57,000 unaccompanied minors, the families were fleeing violence and other dangers in their home countries. ICE had in 2009 closed another family detention center amid strong criticism. But it opened new centers and expanded an existing one to hold women and their children. Current capacity is for more than 3,000 people, primarily at two detention centers in Texas, including one built specifically to house 2,500 women and children.

Gee had issued a preliminary ruling in May, telegraphing her intentions to find the detention system unacceptable. In response, ICE had begun releasing more families on bond and with ankle-bracelet monitoring systems, but hundreds of families are still in the centers.

Most of the detained families have met the first legal hurdle in applying for asylum. Other families apprehended at the border are released on bond pending adjudication of their attempts to be allowed to remain. But some have been held in the centers for more than a year.

In her July 24 order, Gee said she found it "astonishing that the defendants have enacted a policy requiring such expensive infrastructure without more evidence to show that it would be compliant with an agreement that has been in effect for nearly 20 years or effective at achieving what defendants hoped it would accomplish."

The 1997 settlement in Flores v. Reno set out standards for treatment of juveniles who were apprehended by the Border Patrol. The unaccompanied minors picked up in last year’s surge, for instance, were put into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, and placed into a system of foster homes and similar non-detention settings while efforts were made to unite them with family members.

But a whole different set of policies has been applied to children who arrive with their mothers. Those who arrive with their fathers typically are released together or separated and put into the system used for unaccompanied children, attorneys have told Catholic News Service.

Gee said the children who are picked up by the Border Patrol while traveling with their mothers should be treated with the same level of care as those who arrive on their own.

Gee ordered the administration to release children and parents unless there’s "a significant flight risk, or a threat to others or the national security." She also ordered ICE to come up with standards for which immigrant children, including those with their parents, are held in even temporary conditions.

Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, welcomed Gee’s ruling and urged the administration to comply with it expeditiously.

"Appealing the decision would only prolong a flawed and unjust policy of treating this vulnerable population as criminals," said a July 27 statement from Bishop Elizondo.

In a July 27 letter to ICE director Sarah Saldana, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and other immigrant legal services agencies called for ICE "to account for the cascade of due process violations and detrimental practices at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas."

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