A federal appeals court has ruled the Trump administration must end its practice of holding immigrant children in hotels for days or weeks after stopping them at the border, and instead must house them in licensed facilities while awaiting possible deportation.

A court-approved 1997 settlement in the Flores case, still in effect, requires the government to release undocumented immigrants under 18 to their parents, if available, and if not, to house them in a licensed, minimum-security facility within three to five days.

But after barring all immigration from Mexico in March at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the administration’s Department of Homeland Security started placing newly apprehended minors in hotels. As of Aug. 20, a judge found, 660 youths aged 10 to 17 had been held in 25 hotels, most for five days or less, but about one-fourth for more than 10 days and some for as long as 28 days.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of Los Angeles, who presides over the Flores case, ruled Sept. 4 that the administration’s conduct violated the terms of the settlement and said it probably also increased the risk of spreading the coronavirus to the public, contradicting the department’s claim that it was acting for safety reasons. Her ban on hotel placement for more than a few days was put on hold while the administration sought a stay, but on Sunday night the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Gee’s order would take effect Monday.

While the administration claimed that placing youngsters in licensed, government-supervised shelters and family centers would increase the risk of illness there, it has failed to explain “why holding minors in hotels, which are open to the public, presents less risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread, both to the minors and to the public, than holding them in licensed facilities,” the three-judge panel said.

The court also said Homeland Security’s claim that the youths had to be housed in hotels was contradicted by the government’s own data: As of Aug. 22, there were 10,000 vacant beds in government shelters for unaccompanied minors.

“Nothing in the present record establishes that the COVID-19 pandemic prevents the government from placing minors in licensed programs within three days,” the court said.

The panel consisted of Judges William Fletcher, Marsha Berzon and Milan Smith.

There was no immediate comment from the Department of Homeland Security.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @BobEgelko

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