A federal judge has ordered the release of children from ICE detention centers saying ‘there is no more time for half measures’, after 2,500 immigrants have tested positive for coronavirus and infections surge across the US.
Judge Dolly M. Gee of the US District Court for the Central District of California ruled Friday that migrant children be freed from the three family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania with ‘all deliberate speed’ because of the risks of contracting the deadly virus.
‘The family residential centers are on fire and there is no more time for half measures,’ she wrote in the ruling.
The order comes as fears are mounting for the safety of the migrant population after around 2,500 immigrants in ICE detention, including several children, have tested positive for coronavirus to date.
This equates to almost 20 percent of all 13,641 people currently detained by the ICE, based on its latest population data for June 20.
Immigrant families are seen at ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, in 2019. A federal judge has ordered the release of children from ICE detention centers saying ‘there is no more time for half measures’, after 2,500 immigrants have tested positive for coronavirus and infections surge across the US
Gee ordered that migrant children held in Berks in Pennsylvania, South Texas (Dilley) and Karnes County Family Residential Centers in Texas be released by July 17 after some tested positive for the deadly virus.
The ruling, in which Gee blasted the Trump administration for failing to put in place coronavirus precautions at facilities, applies to children who have been held for more than 20 days.
The children must either be released along with their parents or to ‘available suitable sponsors or other available COVID-free non-congregate settings’ with their parents’ consent.
A total of 124 children, ranging from 1 year old to 17 years old, were living in the centers as of June 8.
This marks the first time a court set a specific deadline rather than simply ordering the ‘prompt’ release of children in family detention if their parents designated a guardian in the US to take custody.
Judge Dolly M. Gee of the US District Court for the Central District of California (pictured) ruled Friday that migrant children be freed from the three family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania with ‘all deliberate speed’
Peter Schey, counsel for the class of detained children, said many families would choose to send their children to guardians in the US than have them return with them to home countries where they could be ‘kidnapped, beaten and killed’.
‘Some detained parents facing deportation brought their children to this country to save them from rampant violence in their home countries and would prefer to see their child released to relatives here rather than being deported with the parent to countries where children are routinely kidnapped, beaten and killed,’ he said.
Concerns have been building that detention centers could be hotbeds for the virus due to the high volumes of people living in cramped conditions.
Cases are surging across the US with the number of infections rising by nearly 40,000 on Thursday – marking the largest single-day increase since the pandemic started.
Deaths from COVID-19 have now topped 125,000 and states in the South and West – including hard-hit Texas – are hitting record levels of cases and hospitalizations.
Fears for the migrant population have been realized, with several cases confirmed at facilities up and down the country.
The ICE said it has released around 900 vulnerable people and reduced the number of people in each of its 137 detention facilities to try to limit the risk of outbreaks.
At least 11 children and parents at the Karnes City facility have been confirmed to have the virus while an unknown number of migrants at Dilley are awaiting test results after staff members tested positive.
Gee’s ruling comes one month after House Democratic lawmakers called on the Trump administration to answer to allegations that the ICE was forcing detained families to choose between staying with their children or releasing them.
Similar accounts were shared by people across the three family centers.
‘The administration must stop using this public health crisis as a means for implementing unlawful and inhumane immigration policies,’ the letter from the Democrats read.
‘In these extraordinary times, human suffering need not be compounded by locking up families or instilling fear in the hearts of migrant parents.’
The ICE denied separating parents from their children ‘pursuant to “binary choice”‘.
Gee oversees compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement which sets limits on the length of time and conditions under which children can be incarcerated in immigration detention.
In September 2018, the Trump Administration sought to end the agreement, including that children must be transferred to a non-secure, licensed facility within three to five days of detention – or up to 20 days in times of emergency – and instead allow children to be detained for longer.
Gee blocked the attempts, which are now going through the appeals courts.