A federal judge has ordered the Trump administration to stop using hotels to hold migrant children and families caught at the border during the coronavirus pandemic, ruling that the conditions aren’t good enough.
Judge Dolly M. Gee, an Obama appointee, said a decades-old agreement about how immigrant children who are in the country illegally are to be treated sets the standards, and the hotels don’t meet them.
“The court finds that these conditions are not adequately safe and do not sufficiently account for the vulnerability of unaccompanied minors in detention,” wrote Judge Gee, who more than any other individual save President Trump is responsible for writing the rules of the modern immigration system.
The government is using the hotels as a stopgap measure to keep migrants for about five days before they are expelled back to their home country.
Some 660 children ages 10 to 17 have been housed in 25 hotels across three states.
Judge Gee said in her decision late Friday that those hotels run the risks of spreading coronavirus to the children, with housekeeping and other staff coming and going.
She said the children should instead be sent to government-run shelters for undocumented immigrant children — the very shelters the government, under court pressure, has tried to empty out to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“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,” she wrote. “But that is no excuse for DHS to skirt the fundamental humanitarian protections that the Flores Agreement guarantees for minors in their custody, especially when there is no persuasive evidence that hoteling is safer than licensed facilities.”
The Flores Agreement is the court-imposed settlement that governs the treatment of migrant children. Originally, it only applied to children who showed up at the border without a parent, but under a Judge Gee order in 2015, it now applies to those who arrive with parents.
That sparked the family migrant surge that saw hundreds of thousands of migrants jump the border last year — and saw some children die.
The Trump administration this year triggered part of a public health law, Title 42, that allows immediate expulsion of unauthorized border crossers.
The administration had argued that people subject to that weren’t part of the Flores Agreement. Judge Gee rejected that attempt to draw a distinction.