Immigration Law

Federal judge finds immigration officials are mistreating unaccompanied minors

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection is again violating a 20-year-old settlement intended to protect the rights of detained immigrant juveniles, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

According to Law360 (sub. req.), Los Angeles federal district judge Dolly Gee found that some CBP facilities do not meet the standards of the 1997 settlement in Flores v. Reno, now called Flores v. Sessions. Law360 says Gee was concerned about a CBP facility with spotty access to clean water, insufficient food, “bad sleeping conditions” and intentional use of air conditioning to create very cold temperatures—called “hieleras,” or “iceboxes,” by Spanish-speaking immigrants.

Immigration Impact, a blog run by the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council, says Gee also took the government to task for detaining juveniles for longer than a 20-day period she set in 2015 when she last made a major ruling in the case. The settlement requires that children be released “without unnecessary delay”; Gee said in 2015 that 20 days may be in compliance. On Tuesday, she said that even if CBP is in an emergency situation, it’s still holding too many children beyond that deadline.

“Defendants entered into the Flores Agreement and now they do not want to perform—but want this court to bless the breach,” she wrote. “That is not how contracts work.”

As a remedy, Gee ordered the appointment of a juvenile coordinator, something provided for in the 1997 settlement but apparently never enforced. Gee said it was unclear whether there was ever such a monitor, and if so, whether that person kept records about minors held more than three days, as required by the settlement.


Carlos Holguín. Photo Illustration by Brenan Sharp and Tony Avelar

As the ABA Journal reported last year, the Flores settlement has been reopened at least three times over its 20-year history, each time because of allegations that the government was violating safety and release conditions. Most recently, it was reopened after concerns arose about the fate of the large number of unaccompanied minors and mothers traveling with small children began appearing at the border in 2014. In 2015, Gee ruled that the settlement applies to minors traveling with their mothers, who must be released; the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that as to the adults, and plaintiffs’ attorneys filed the current motion to enforce the rights of just the minors.

Law360 notes that a 2001 Department of Justice report found that the Immigration and Naturalization Service—the agency that handled border patrols before the Department of Homeland Security reorganized that function—had never fully complied with Flores.

As the ABA Journal noted in 2016, the lawsuit has been stewarded for more than 30 years—it was filed in 1985 as Flores v. Meese—by attorney Carlos Holguín of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. Holguín said he filed it partly because in that era, the INS was keeping minors in makeshift facilities in which ages and genders mixed freely without concern about safety. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and back before it settled, and has been an important tool for immigration attorneys concerned about the rights of minors.

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