Judge: US must free migrant children from family detention

In this Aug. 23, 2019 file photo, immigrants seeking asylum hold hands as they leave a cafeteria at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The isolation of at least three families at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention center in Dilley, has raised new fears of the coronavirus spreading through a facility that has long been accused of providing substandard medical care. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
In this Aug. 23, 2019 file photo, immigrants seeking asylum hold hands as they leave a cafeteria at the ICE South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. The isolation of at least three families at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention center in Dilley, has raised new fears of the coronavirus spreading through a facility that has long been accused of providing substandard medical care. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) (AP)

HOUSTON – A federal judge on Friday ordered the release of children held with their parents in U.S. immigration jails and denounced the Trump administration’s prolonged detention of families during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee’s order applies to children held for more than 20 days at three family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some have been detained since last year.

Citing the recent spread of the virus in two of the three facilities, Gee set a deadline of July 17 for children to either be released with their parents or sent to family sponsors.

The family detention centers “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures," she wrote.

Gee's order said ICE was detaining 124 children in its centers, which are separate from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services facilities for unaccompanied children that were holding around 1,000 children in early June. The numbers in both systems have fallen significantly since earlier in the Trump administration because the U.S. is expelling most people trying to cross the border or requiring them to wait for their immigration cases in Mexico.

Gee oversees a long-running court settlement governing the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrant children known as the Flores agreement. Her order does not directly apply to the parents detained with their children.

Gee’s order says ICE can decline to release a child if there is not a suitable sponsor, the child’s parent waives rights under the Flores agreement, or if there is a “prior unexplained failure to appear at a scheduled hearing.”

ICE did not respond to a request for comment Friday.