A federal judge has ordered the release of children held with their parents in US immigration jails and denounced the Trump administration’s prolonged detention of families during the coronavirus pandemic.
The order by US District Judge Dolly Gee applies to children held for more than 20 days at three family detention centres in Texas and Pennsylvania operated by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Some have been detained since last year.
Citing the recent spread of the virus in two of the three facilities, Gee set a deadline of July 17 for children to either be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors.
The family detention centres “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures”, she wrote.
Gee’s order said ICE was currently detaining 124 children in its centres, which are separate from US Department of Health and Human Services facilities for unaccompanied children, which were holding about 1,000 children in early June.
The numbers in both systems have fallen significantly since 2019, when the Trump administration began expelling most people trying to cross the border or requiring them to wait for their immigration cases in Mexico.
The order does not directly apply to the parents detained with their children and says that ICE can decline to release a child if there is not a suitable sponsor, the child’s parent waives the right to the child’s release, or if there is a “prior unexplained failure to appear at a scheduled hearing”.
Most parents last month refused to designate a sponsor when ICE officials unexpectedly asked them who could take their children if the adults remained detained, according to lawyers for the families. The agency said then it was conducting a “routine parole review consistent with the law” and Gee’s previous orders.
Meanwhile, advocates have called on ICE to release all families from detention, especially as the coronavirus has spread rapidly through immigration detention.
In court filings revealed on Thursday, ICE said 11 children and parents have tested positive for COVID-19 at the family detention centre in Karnes City, Texas.
At the detention centre in nearby Dilley, at least three parents and children – including a child who turned two this week – were placed in isolation after two private contractors and an ICE official tested positive for the virus.
Amy Maldonado, a lawyer who works with detained families, told The Associated Press news agency that the judge “clearly recognised that the government is not willing to protect the health and safety of the children, which is their obligation”.
“They need to make the sensible choice and release the parents to care for their children,” she said of the government.
More than 2,500 people in ICE custody have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak began in the US in February.
The agency says it has released at least 900 people considered to have heightened medical risk and reduced the populations at its three family detention centres.
In court filings last month, ICE said it considered most of the people in family detention to be flight risks because they had pending deportation orders or cases under review.
US President Donald Trump had made immigration a keystone of his 2016 election campaign and it remains so in his 2020 campaign. In 2018, his administration was roundly derided for instating a so-called “zero-tolerance” policy that saw thousands of migrant children separated from their families.
After a national and international outcry, Trump signed an executive order ending the policy.