Hundreds Of Migrant Children Held In SoCal Expected To Be Released Because Of Pandemic

Young people walk the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. in July 2019. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Migrant children in federal facilities, including hundreds detained in Southern California, must be released to relatives during the pandemic, under a new court order.

The ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles came late Friday after immigrant advocates argued that sheltering with family is safer for the children than keeping them in shelters.

Lawyers for the migrant children said the Trump administration no longer had an excuse to delay their release dates.

"It did almost take a pandemic and that's tragic that it would require that," said Peter Schey, the attorney leading the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles.

Lindsay Toczylowski, who directs the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles, anticipates a noticeable increase in the number of children released from Southern California facilities starting this week.

Toczylowski said she has not heard of any COVID-19 infections among the children detained, but she worries they could fall ill in congregate settings as migrant adults in detention have.

"It's kids living in close quarters with one another, sleeping in rooms that have multiple children," Toczylowski said. "You have staff members who are coming in and out of facilities and therefore being exposed to the community outside."

A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates some of the facilities holding minors, said the agency is still reviewing the court order and had no comment.

FINGERPRINTING CAN'T BE AN EXCUSE

Gee's order said federal agencies could not delay children's release by using reasons such as the lack of fingerprints from sponsors. Facilities that perform fingerprinting have shut down during the pandemic. Gee advised that sponsors could be fingerprinted after the children are in their custody, given there are no "red flags."

Gee issued her order to uphold the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement. The federal consent decree ensures migrant children live in safe and sanitary facilities and limits how long they can be detained. Generally, it's about 20 days.

But, Toczylowski said some children were staying at facilities for months, even years.

"The government was keeping them in congregate care facilities for longer than they needed to be," Toczylowski said. "So we're relieved to see the judge's order is requiring the government to move forward with getting these kids back home with their families."

Gee's order will affect about 2,100 unaccompanied minors in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and more than 300 children held with families at ICE detention centers.

Schey, who was one of the lawyers who filed the case that led to the Flores agreement, said he expected Gee's order would apply to most of the migrant children.

A minority may not be released from custody if they've been deemed at flight risk; a danger to themselves or others; or are facing immediate deportation, Schey said.

California is home to several ORR facilities and dozens of foster care homes for migrant children. The state does not house any ICE facilities detaining families.

In her order, Gee wrote that "ORR's obligation to release minors without unnecessary delay requires moving with greater speed to remove minors from congregate environments where a suitable custodian exists."

The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not respond to requests for comment.

In related news, the ACLU of Southern California is among the groups petitioning the state to halt the transfer of people into ICE facilities and drastically reduce the populations at juvenile halls and jails given the pandemic.

The California Supreme Court has given the governor and attorney general of California until Tuesday to respond to the ACLU's petition.