Judge orders timely accommodation for migrant children waiting at the border

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By journalsofus.com

The federal government must “quickly” house migrant children who cross illegally into the United States, rather than allowing them to remain in unsafe outdoor sites along the border, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Wednesday night. .

The decision, handed down by Judge Dolly M. Gee of the U.S. District Court for Central California, primarily sided with attorneys representing the children in a class-action lawsuit. She established that minors at the sites were in the legal custody of the Department of Homeland Security and therefore entitled to certain rights and protections, such as a safe and sanitary environment, even if they had not yet been formally processed.

The court order, which takes effect immediately, is expected to affect thousands of children and potentially many more. It will likely force U.S. Customs and Border Protection to dedicate additional resources to keep pace with the flow of migrants. The agency said it had already more than tripled capacity at processing centers in San Diego and had increased the number of transportation buses and staff to speed up arrests.

The ruling comes amid a fierce political and cultural debate over the rights of immigrants (including children) who enter the United States without permission. Due to the influx of border crossings between the United States and Mexico, immigration processing centers in southern San Diego County are overloaded and migrants have He waited for hours or sometimes days in makeshift camps. to be taken into custody.

So far the outdoor encampments are only in California, but the order’s language is not limited to the state, so if similar encampments emerge in other border states, the ruling will likely apply.

Outdoor areas lack shelter, food and sanitation, which has led to a number of public health problems for the most vulnerable. Unaccompanied children and young families sometimes arrive in poor health, according to aid workers and medical volunteers at the sites, suffering from traumatic injuries or chronic health conditions that require medications that have long since run out of stock.

During hot desert days, dehydration and heatstroke have become common problems, according to aid groups, and nighttime temperatures, wind and rain are creating conditions ripe for hypothermia. Doctors are particularly concerned about those elements for children, since many have less body fat than adults and may be malnourished from their travels.

The government had argued that the children were not yet in U.S. custody, so it had no obligation to provide services to them. The judge cited Border Patrol agents’ control over children’s ability to leave sites (and their power to determine whether children have access to medical help and treatment) as the basis for her ruling.

“The ability to exercise discretion and make decisions affecting the health and well-being of a child is indicative of maintaining legal custody of the child, regardless of whether that decision is to provide or deny care.” the 12 page order read. “Minors, unlike adults, are always under some type of custody.”

Judge Gee denied attorneys’ request for a specific time limit on how long minors could be held at the sites, but said the Department of Homeland Security needed to process all the children “quickly” and place them in facilities that are safe, sanitary and “consistent with DHS’s concern for the particular vulnerability of minors.”

It said Border Patrol officers should stop directing minors to sites or holding them at sites “except for the amount of time DHS reasonably requires to prepare the minor and/or actively arrange for the minor’s transportation to a more appropriate installation.”

Attorneys representing the children had argued that they should be given housing and services under a 1997 consent decree known as the Flores settlement agreement. That agreement established treatment standards for immigrant children in government custody, requiring that they be given access to basic provisions such as bathrooms, food and clean water, and that they generally be held in facilities licensed by the state to care for children in the country. child welfare system. Lawyers filed a motion in February seeking to enforce those terms for children in outdoor settings.

At issue was whether children crossing the southern border, alone or with their families, were the responsibility of the federal government while they remained in open areas waiting to surrender to U.S. border authorities.

In the motion, the attorneys argued that children who have not yet been formally detained deserve the same safe and sanitary housing as those already in official custody, since they are prohibited from leaving the camps and have no way to return to the other side. of the border.

In response, Justice Department lawyers argued that because U.S. customs officials had not yet formally detained the children, they were not required to provide such a service. They did not dispute that conditions in the camps were bad.

“CBP has been detaining and transporting minors to safe and sanitary U.S. Border Patrol facilities expeditiously,” the defense attorneys wrote. “But until that happens, plaintiffs will not be in DHS custody,” they said.

A senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official said he could not comment on the legal matter, but emphasized that the current immigration system was not equipped to handle the influx of migrants arriving at the border. He noted that the court rulings did not include additional remedies to make the orders more workable.

The court’s latest ruling acknowledged those “practical difficulties” but said the agency “has not been processing class members as quickly as possible,” citing evidence that it “finds the ability to process children more quickly.” efficient in times of scrutiny.”

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