A federal judge ruled Friday that the Trump administration stop detaining migrant children at hotels prior to deporting them.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, an Obama appointee, said the practice violated “fundamental humanitarian protections” and ran afoul of a 20-year rule dictating the treatment of migrant children in government custody. The order mandates border agencies to halt the placement of children in hotels by Sept. 15 and remove those already there as soon as possible.
Gee also dismissed arguments that hotels provided a safer place to detain children during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This court is sensitive to the exigencies created by COVID-19 and recognizes that the pandemic may require temporary, emergency modifications to the immigration system to enhance public safety. But that is no excuse for [the Department of Homeland Security] to skirt the fundamental humanitarian protections that the Flores Amendment guarantees for minors in their custody, especially when there is no persuasive evidence that hoteling is safer than licensed facilities,” she wrote.
Gee added that “the Court is obliged to ensure that minors in DHS custody are not left in a legal no-man’s land.”
The Trump administration has put at least 577 unaccompanied children in hotels in Texas and Arizona since March before then typically placing them on deportation flights.
The Friday ruling orders the government to resume sending unaccompanied children to Department of Health and Human Services’s (HHS) shelters where they can receive legal services, education and the opportunity to be placed with relatives already in the U.S. The ruling also gives immigration lawyers access to children the government is trying to deport under an emergency declaration put in place during the pandemic, and it applies to children with parents who crossed the border with no authorization.
The government “cannot seriously argue in good faith that flouting their contractual obligation to place minors in licensed programs is necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Gee wrote.
Her decision still allows hotels to be used for short stays of one or two nights as the minors travel between locations.
The Trump administration has argued that the court does not have the authority to prevent it from using hotels because the minors do not fall under the Flores Amendment court settlement outlining how children can be detained.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is reviewing Gee’s ruling and maintained it is in compliance with all federal court orders related to COVID-19 to include the Flores litigation.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is aware of the hearing held today on Plaintiffs’ motions to enforce. ICE is evaluating the court’s decision but is unable to comment further due to ongoing litigation. As part of the Department of Homeland Security’s mission, our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the Department’s mission and values, and uphold our laws while continuing to provide the nation with safety and security,” said an ICE spokesperson.