A federal judge has ordered the Trump administration to end its practice of detaining children asylum seekers in hotels while arrangements are made to expel them from the country as part of an immigration policy designed to curb the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.
U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles ruled on Friday that the children who were brought over or crossed over illegally into the United States during the pandemic are entitled to protections under the 1997 Flores settlement agreement. The agreement is a court ruling that says minors who cross the border illegally cannot be detained for more than 20 days and requires children in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be housed in facilities that meet certain standards as well as be given certain standards of care.
To curb the spread of the CCP virus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order in March closing the U.S.-border with Mexico and Canada. The order called for certain foreign people to be removed from the United States and returned to their country of origin, or another practicable location, as quickly as possible. The order has been extended twice and the second time it was extended indefinitely.
As part of this policy, the DHS has been using hotels to temporarily house accompanied and unaccompanied children for multiple days before they are removed from the country.
In her ruling, Gee found that this practice breaches the DHS’s duty under the Flores agreement because children are meant to be placed in licensed programs after arrest, if no qualified adult or entity can take custody. Moreover, she ruled that the practice of hoteling lacks oversight and raises concerns about the standard of care for young children.
She also found that children and families also have trouble in accessing a lawyer and that legal services providers have claimed that they face unusual difficulty locating children that are held in hotel detention.
“When attorneys were able to locate a child, ICE physically prevented them from entering the hotel,” Gee wrote (pdf). “ICE has also limited children’s ability to speak to attorneys by phone.”
Citing an independent monitor, the court said 660 minors between the ages of 10 and 17 were being housed in 25 hotels in three states, where 577 of them were unaccompanied.
Although Gee acknowledged that the Trump administration may make changes to the immigration system to protect public safety against the pandemic, it is still “no excuse for DHS to skirt the fundamental humanitarian protections that the Flores Agreement guarantees for minors in their custody, especially when there is no persuasive evidence that hoteling is safer than licensed facilities.”
“While the legality of the Closure Order generally is beyond the scope of this Court’s jurisdiction, the Court is obligated to ensure that minors in DHS custody are not left in a legal no-man’s land, where no enforceable standards apply,” Gee wrote.
She ordered the department to cease placing children in hotel detention by Sept. 15, with the exception of one to two-night stays while in transit or prior to flights. She also ordered DHS to “transfer all minors—both accompanied and unaccompanied—currently held in hotels to licensed facilities.”
The National Center for Youth Law, who brought the motion, applauded the decision.
“The Court held that the federal government cannot continue to place or hold immigrant children in unmonitored and unlicensed motels for weeks on end before expelling them from the United States,” the organization said in a statement.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.