Judge orders prompt housing for migrant children waiting at border

The federal government is required to “expeditiously” house migrant children who enter the United States illegally, rather than allowing them to remain in unsafe outdoor sites along the border, a Federal District Court judge ruled Wednesday evening.

The decision, issued by Judge Dolly M. Gee of the U.S. District Court of Central California, mostly sided with lawyers representing children in a class action lawsuit. She determined that the 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 impact thousands of children and potentially many more. It will likely force U.S. Customs and Border Protection to dedicate additional resources to keep up with the flow of migrants. The agency said it has already more than tripled the capacity of San Diego processing centers and increased the number of buses and transportation staff to speed arrests.

The ruling comes amid a fierce political and cultural debate over the rights of migrants – including children – who enter the United States without permission. Due to the influx of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration processing centers in southern San Diego County are strained, and migrants have waited for hours or sometimes days in makeshift camps to be processed. taken into custody.

So far, outdoor camps are only in California, but the ordinance's language wasn't limited to the state, so if similar camps were to spring up in other border states, the ruling would likely apply.

Outdoor areas lack shelter, food and sanitation, which has triggered a series of public health concerns for the most vulnerable. According to aid workers and medical volunteers at the sites, unaccompanied children and young families sometimes arrive in poor health, suffering from traumatic injuries or chronic health conditions that require long-out-of-use medications.

During hot desert days, dehydration and heat stroke have become common problems, according to aid groups, and nighttime temperatures, wind and rain are creating conditions ripe for hypothermia. Doctors are especially concerned about these items for children, as many have lower body fat than adults and may be malnourished while traveling.

The government had argued that the children were not yet in U.S. custody, so it had no obligation to provide services. The judge cited Border Patrol agents' control over minors' ability to leave the sites — and their power to influence children's access to aid and medical care — as the reason for his ruling.

“The ability to exercise discretion and make decisions that affect 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 withhold care,” reads the order 12 pages. “Minors, unlike adults, are always under some form of custody.”

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

It said Border Patrol agents must stop directing minors to the sites or detaining them at the sites “except for as long as DHS reasonably requires to prepare the minor and/or actively arrange for the minor to be transported to a more suitable facility ”.

Lawyers representing the children had argued that they should receive housing and services under a 1997 consent decree known as the Flores settlement agreement. That agreement established standards of treatment for immigrant children in government custody, requiring that they have access to basic services such as sanitation, food, and drinking water, and that they generally be held in facilities licensed by the state to care for children in the system of child welfare. Attorneys filed a motion in February seeking to enforce such conditions for children in outdoor venues.

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

In the motion, the lawyers argue that children who have not yet been formally arrested deserve the same safe and sanitary housing as those already in official custody, as they are barred from leaving the camps and have no way to recross the border.

In response, Justice Department lawyers argued that because the children had not yet been formally taken into custody by U.S. customs officials, they were not obligated to provide such a service. They did not dispute the fact that conditions in the camps were terrible.

“CBP apprehended and transported the minors to safe and sanitary U.S. Border Patrol facilities in a timely manner,” defense attorneys wrote. “But until that happens, the 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 stressed that the current immigration system is not equipped to handle the flow of migrants arriving at the border. He noted that court rulings have not come with additional resources to make the orders more feasible.

The court's latest ruling acknowledged these “practical difficulties” but said the agency “did not process class members as quickly as possible,” citing evidence that it “finds the capacity to process children more efficiently in times of control”.

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