Judge: United States must release migrant children from family detention

HOUSTON – A federal judge on Friday ordered the release of children detained with their parents in U.S. immigration jails and denounced the prolonged detention of families by the Trump administration during the coronavirus pandemic.

The order of the United States District Judge, Dolly Gee, applies to children detained for more than 20 days in three family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania operated by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service . Some have been detained since last year.

Citing the recent spread of the virus at two of the three facilities, Gee set a deadline of July 17 for children to be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors.


Family detention centers “are” on fire “and there is no more time for half measures,” he wrote.

Gee’s order said ICE was detaining 124 children at its centers, which are separate from the facilities of the US Department of Health and Human Services for unaccompanied children who had about 1,000 children in early June. The numbers in both systems have dropped significantly since the beginning of the Trump administration because the United States is expelling most people who try to cross the border or require them to wait for their immigration cases in Mexico.

Immigrants seeking asylum hold hands as they leave a cafeteria at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, on August 23, 2019. (Associated Press)

Immigrants seeking asylum hold hands as they leave a cafeteria at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, on August 23, 2019. (Associated Press)

Gee oversees a long-standing court settlement that governs the US government’s treatment of immigrant children known as the Flores Settlement. Her order does not apply directly to parents detained with their children.

Gee’s order says ICE may refuse to release a child if there is no proper sponsor, if the child’s parents give up the rights to the Flores settlement, or if there is an “unexplained prior failure to appear at a scheduled hearing.”

ICE did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

But most parents declined to designate a sponsor last month when ICE officials unexpectedly asked them who could bring their children if the adults remained in detention, according to the family’s attorneys. The agency said it was conducting a “routine parole review consistent with the law” and Gee’s previous orders.

Proponents argue that ICE should release all families from detention, especially since the coronavirus has spread rapidly through immigration detention. In court filings released Thursday, ICE said 11 children and parents tested positive for COVID-19 at the family detention center in Karnes City, Texas.

At the detention center in nearby Dilley, at least three parents and children, including a boy who turned 2 this week, were placed in isolation after two private contractors and an ICE official tested positive for the virus.

Amy Maldonado, a lawyer working with detained families, said Gee “clearly recognized that the government is unwilling to protect the health and safety of children, which is its obligation.”

“They must make a sensible decision and free parents to take care of their children,” he said of the government.


For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that disappear within two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more serious illnesses, such as pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

More than 2,500 people in ICE custody have tested positive for COVID-19. The agency says it has released at least 900 people believed to have increased medical risk and reduced population in its three family detention centers. But in documents filed with the court last month, ICE said it believed that most people in family detention were at risk of flight because they had pending deportation orders or cases under review.