Detainee Kids Vulnerable to COVID-19 Face ‘Family Separation 2.0’

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Art by Jared Rodriguez via Flickr.

Parents of children held by federal immigration and advocates say a court-ordered hold on releasing the kids amounts to “Family Separation 2.0.”

After a multi-month battle between California Federal Judge Dolly M. Gee and the Trump administration, Judge Gee has ruled that the Monday, July 27 deadline to release children in federal immigration custody was now open to discussion and debate.

According to Judge  Gee, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency might not be able to release the children in the three ways she previously outlined, CNN and TIME report. 

The three ways Gee had outlined in her ruling detailed “releasing families who are in ICE detention together, releasing children to a sponsor, or releasing families based upon a federal court order.”

However, last Wednesday, Washington D.C. District Court Judge James Boasberg denied a motion to release all parents and children together, saying it “is not necessary at this time,” and that “they have not yet clearly shown that they are entitled to the extraordinary remedy of blanket release from immigration detention,” TIME reported. 

Now, advocates and parents in the ICE detention centers alike are deeming this “Family Separation 2.0” when having to make a decision about whether to hold onto their children in COVID-19 infested camps or to release them to sponsors.  

Shalyn Fluharty, director of Proyecto Dilley, an organization that offers legal services to immigrant families in detention, denounced Judge Gee’s decision, saying it essentially gave ICE the power to decide whether to continue keeping children in cages during a pandemic. 

“The bottom line for me is that kids are detained indefinitely and they have no way out unless ICE agrees to do it or families agree to be separated,” Fluharty said, as quoted by CNN

Gee oversees the implementation of the Flores Agreement, which governs and outlines standards for care of children and unaccompanied minors in custody — like the children aged 1 to 17  housed across the ICE facilities, according to lawyers and advocates who provide legal assistance.

Citing the agreement and pandemic last month, Gee said that due to the “non-compliance or spotty compliance with masking and social distancing rules,” it was imperative to transfer children out of the three ICE facilities, — Berks in Pennsylvania, South Texas (Dilley) and Karnes County in Texas — CNN details. 

According to ICE, there are 969 detainees with current positive coronavirus cases who are under isolation or monitoring as of July 23 — with 3,700 total documented since the pandemic began 

Of the currently active virus cases, there are 25 confirmed infections in the family detention centers of Karnes and Dilley, Texas.  

Bridget Cambria, an immigration lawyer who represents families at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania, one of the three facilities that detains children told the TIMES, “It’s a Sophie’s Choice, either you stay in a burning building with your child or you give your child away…it’s a false option.”

“We’ve been calling this ‘Family Separation 2.0,’” Cambira said. 

Seventeen-year-old Dilley detention center detainee, ‘Nadia’ spoke to the TIMES on the condition of anonymity, in regard to her situation behind bars. Nadia said the extended isolation in the facility, on top of the global pandemic, has been “traumatizing and frustrating.” 

When asked about the new separation rules and potential to be released to a sponsor family, Nadia said, “It would be really hard for me to separate from my mother. She’s all that I have.”

“She’s my mother and my father,” Nadia continues, as quoted by the TIMES. “But I’ll add that for all the other children who are younger than me, it would be an even bigger loss. That’s why we’re asking that they free us all together.”

It still remains unclear how ICE will implement Gee’s order to release all children, especially now that the deadline is up in the air. 

ICE declined to comment citing that this was still a part of pending litigation, but to a prepared statement sent to TIME, they wrote:

As part of the Department of Homeland Security’s homeland security mission, our trained law enforcement professionals adhere to the Department’s mission and values, and uphold our laws while continuing to provide the nation with safety and security.

Advocates say they will be watching the situation closely as it continues to unfold, vowing to make sure that the children are released in accordance with the law. 

Additional Reading: Up to 850,000 Immigration Cases in ‘Limbo’ After Pandemic Shutdown: Study

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano

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