Judge orders ICE to release children in custody, citing lack of COVID-19 health protections

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June 27 (UPI) -- A federal judge has ordered immigration officials to release certain children held in U.S. detention facilities since they failed to provide health protections against COVID-19.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California issued the order Friday in response to reports earlier this month from independent monitors on Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The reports were filed in accordance with the court's order in April to enforce the Flores Settlement Agreement, which limits detention of children to 20 days.

As of June 8, ICE had 124 children at three detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania, court documents show. Another 507 children were in ORR shelters as of June 7.

Gee said that while she appreciated that ICE and ORR made efforts to reduce the number of children in custody, the ICE Family Residential Centers and ORR facilities still lack enough protection from the novel coronavirus.

"Although progress has been made, the court is not surprised that COVID-19 has arrived at both the FRCs and ORR facilities, as health professionals have warned all along," Gee wrote.

Gee said ICE FRCs were "on fire" and "there is no time for half measures," since independent monitor Dr. Paul Wise said the FRCs lacked basic health protections from COVID-19. Wise told the court the facilities needed improvement in social distancing, masking and testing.

As of Thursday, at least 11 people detained at a FRC in Karnes City, Texas, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and four employees at another FRC in Dilley, Texas, have tested positive.

No COVID-19 cases have been reported at Berks FRC in Pennsylvania, but six children had viral stomatitis, an infection in children which produces sores around the mouth, in or around April, "demonstrating the ease with which contagion can spread in the congregate settings," Gee said.

Under the order, children are to be released to available sponsors, or other COVID-19-free, non-congregate settings with consent of their guardians or parents, or released to guardians or parents.

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