Human rights agency the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) has hailed as a major victory the decision late Friday by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, which ruled against the current federal system of processing and detaining asylum-seeking children and their mothers.
Judge Gee, of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California, ruled that the Obama administration’s present family detention system violates the 18-year-old Flores v. Meese settlement, which bars immigrant children from being held in unlicensed, secured facilities.
While it is not yet clear how the administration will respond to the ruling, UUSC is joining with advocates and legal counsel nationwide in calling the court decision a striking affirmation in defense of vulnerable children and mothers and on behalf of the rights of asylum seekers widely.
“We urge the Obama administration not to appeal this decision, but to embrace it, to abide by it — and to immediately release all mothers and children now being held, so they can await their asylum hearings in compliance, yet in the safety and freedom they’ve been denied,” said UUSC President and Chief Executive Officer Rev. William Schulz.
Judge Gee has given the government agencies 90 days to comply with the court’s ruling. Nearly 2,000 mothers and children remain detained at present, some for more than a year.
UUSC’s Schulz said, “The court’s decision has the power to shield already traumatized families from an unnecessary and abusive detention practice that the government has integrated over the past year into an existing, complex system of private prisons.
“Not jailing children and mothers is a legacy that befits the president,” Schulz said.
“This is a country of checks and balances,” said UUSC Rights at Risk Program Leader and immigration legal expert Rachel Gore Freed. “We are jubilant to see the court’s ruling that finds for the safeguarding of all vulnerable women and children seeking asylum in our country.”
Freed cited the recent serial promises by Department of Homeland (DHS) Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to hasten release of the mostly Central American families who have been held in secured detention centers in South Texas and Pennsylvania. Over the past month, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has so far released more than 200 mothers and children, under cash bond and, increasingly, who are being shackled with electronic monitoring “bracelets.”
‘Do the deed in full’
“Those recent releases have been administration moves of choice,” Freed said. “Now there is court-upheld imperative for DHS and ICE to do the deed, in full,” she said.
“We are particularly encouraged that the court found that even the current initial temporary holding centers for migrants and unaccompanied children at the Texas-Mexican border do not qualify as unsecured facilities,” said UUSC’s Schulz.
Judge Gee’s ruling stated that the government had materially breached the Flores v. Meese agreement’s terms that it must provide “safe and sanitary” holding spaces for class members while in temporary custody.
UUSC’s Schulz reminded the administration that the court’s ruling forbids detention of children and their mothers not only in secured facilities, but in unlicensed ones as well.
“Recent efforts by the privately owned South Texas Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center to gain temporary licensing as day care centers was an embarrassing move on their part and does not qualify them under the court’s ruling,” he said. “It should not be even considered as a card to play if the administration appeals.”
UUSC’s border justice program seeks to decriminalize forced migration and address human rights violations at the U.S. border, and it has been at the forefront of advocacy opposing family detention.