(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration lost a bid to get around an agreement that prevents the U.S. from locking up underage immigrants indefinitely in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
A federal judge in Los Angeles denied a request by the Justice Department to modify a 1997 settlement on behalf of minors crossing into the U.S. that requires that they are either released swiftly to relatives or housed in facilities that are state-licensed to care for dependent children.
It is apparent that the U.S.’s application is a “cynical” attempt “to shift responsibility to the judiciary for over 20 years of congressional inaction and ill-considered executive action that have led to the current stalemate,” U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee said in her decision Monday.
The government had asked Gee to amend the so-called Flores settlement after President Donald Trump issued an order that families crossing the border illegally or seeking asylum at the Mexican border shouldn’t be separated while awaiting criminal or immigration proceedings. That order reversed the administration’s previous “zero tolerance” policy, in which more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents, after a public outcry against the practice.
The U.S. argued that the Flores agreement forced it to send the children to shelters while it detained the parents.
Under the terms of the 1997 settlement, which primarily addressed the status of unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally, the U.S. agreed not to detain children for more than five days, or 20 days if there was a large influx, before releasing them or placing them in licensed facilities. The government had argued that the settlement had to be modified so that the minors can be detained in unlicensed ICE facilities with their parents.
“We disagree with the court’s ruling declining to amend the Flores Agreement to recognize the current crisis of families making the dangerous and unlawful journey across our southern border,” Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said in a statement.
“The court does appear to acknowledge that parents who cross the border will not be released and must choose between remaining in family custody with their children pending immigration proceedings or requesting separation from their children so the child may be placed with a sponsor,” he said. “The Justice Department continues to review the ruling.”
Separately, a federal judge in San Diego has given the U.S. until Tuesday to return children younger than five to their families. Lawyers for the Justice Department said at a hearing Monday that a little more than half of 102 such children in its custody will be reunited with their families at ICE facilities by the deadline, after which they will be released in the U.S. while awaiting immigration procedures.
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