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Citing coronavirus, judge orders efforts to release migrant children

(Cedar Attanasio | AP) Asylum seekers wearing masks enter a door while attending a mandatory immigration court hearing on Monday, March 16, 2020, in El Paso, Texas. Many immigration court hearings were canceled Monday to curb the spread of COVID-19. The migrants are required to live in nearby Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which had no confirmed cases as of Monday morning.

Los Angeles • Concerned that thousands of migrant children in federal detention facilities could be in danger of contracting the coronavirus, a federal judge in Los Angeles late Saturday ordered the government to “make continuous efforts” to release them from custody.

The order from Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court came after plaintiffs in a long-running case over the detention of migrant children cited reports that four children being held at a federally licensed shelter in New York had tested positive for the virus.

“The threat of irreparable injury to their health and safety is palpable,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers said in their petition, which called for migrant children across the country to be released to outside sponsors within seven days, unless they represent a flight risk.

There are about 3,600 children in shelters around the United States operated under license by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, and about 3,300 more at three detention facilities for migrant children held in custody with their parents, operated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

[Read more: Undocumented ‘dreamers’ say they are needed as front-line fighters against coronavirus]

Advocates for immigrants have tried for decades to limit the government’s ability to detain children apprehended after crossing the border, arguing that it is psychologically harmful, violates their rights and undermines their long-term health.

Now, some say, the coronavirus represents an even more immediate threat.

In addition to the four children who tested positive in New York, at least one child is in quarantine and awaiting results of a test for the virus at a detention facility operated by ICE, according to documents filed with the court.

In her ruling Saturday, the judge declined to order an immediate release of all the detained children, given current travel restrictions and the need to ensure that children are released to suitable sponsors, most often family members.

She said, however, that both of the agencies operating detention facilities for migrant children must by April 6 provide an accounting of their efforts to release those in custody.

“Her order will undoubtedly speed up releases,” said Peter Schey, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the court case.

Gee’s jurisdiction stems from a 1997 consent decree, known as the Flores agreement, that established a 20-day limit on the secure detention of migrant children, as well as standards for their care.

In September, Gee rejected new regulations that would have let the government hold children and their parents in detention for indefinite periods, one of the Trump administration’s signature efforts to curtail the large number of families that had been arriving from Central America.

In her order, Gee said the plaintiffs had a strong likelihood of succeeding with their claim that both ICE and the refugee resettlement office had breached the Flores agreement by failing to release minors in a prompt manner, especially in light of the widening coronavirus outbreak.

The court found that the Office of Refugee Resettlement “appears to be in substantial compliance” with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for protecting children from the threat of disease. But it found that ICE, which operates two facilities in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, “appears deficient.”

The agency had not included social distancing, increased personal hygiene or coronavirus testing as part of its protocol for detainees as of March 15, when reports were submitted to the court.

Nor did it recognize the potential psychological harm of quarantining or isolating children for disease-control purposes, the court said, adding that recent observations showed “uneven implementation” of recommended public-health measures.

Last week, the refugee office said it had halted placements of unaccompanied children in California, New York and Washington, where there have been large outbreaks of the coronavirus. It also reported that several staff members at shelters for migrant children had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

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