Federal judge rules migrant children must be placed in HHS shelters, not hotels

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A federal judge has ruled that children of migrants caught crossing the border illegally must be placed in shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, not in hotels.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of the Central District of California, an Obama appointee, ruled that the practice of placing migrant children long-term in hotels, which is controversial, deprive them of “fundamental humanitarian protections.”

The children can still be placed short-term in hotels, perhaps for a day or two, while awaiting processing or space, Fox News reported, citing Gee’s order.

In her ruling, Gee, 61, said putting the children in HHS-run shelters gives them access to legal services and also provides an opportunity for then to be placed with relatives already living inside the United States.

Following an emergency declaration by President Donald Trump in March issued to stop the spread of COVID-19, U.S. border officials have expelled some 148,000 immigrants caught trying to cross illegally.

Critics of the president’s order claim, without evidence, that he is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic as a means of avoiding federal asylum protections and anti-trafficking statutes.

In her ruling, Gee said the federal government “cannot seriously argue in good faith that flouting their contractual obligation to place minors in licensed programs is necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Maria Woltjen, the executive director and founder of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, criticized a Department of Homeland Security directive in a June op-ed for The New York Times that it gave parents a “binary” option — keep their children with them in the shelters or, if they were concerned they could contract the virus, sign a form allowing them to be released.

She also argued at the time that HHS shelters were “nearly empty,” and that there was “plenty of room to quarantine children for 14 days.”

“At the same time, more than 13,000 beds in HHS shelters– where children could get legal help, education and a chance to stay in the country – remain empty,” Fox News added.

Under Gee’s ruling, the administration must stop putting children in hotels by Sept. 15 and instead send them to HHS-run shelters. That includes kids whose parents crossed into the country illegally.

“It also gives lawyers who work with immigrant youths access to the children that the government is trying to expel under the emergency declaration,” the outlet reported.

Attorneys for the federal government hinted they may appeal Gee’s ruling.

HHS has contracted with private firms to monitor children and their families detained at hotels around the clock. Generally speaking, no one is allowed to leave their rooms.

Detainees who have spoken to The Associated Press have said they are being served regular meals but there are no telephones in their rooms.

The Trump administration argued that Gee does not have the authority to order the government to stop using hotels because children being sent back to their countries of origin do not fall within the purview of a longstanding federal court case known as the Flores agreement. It requires certain minors to be detained in facilities that meet certain standards for sanitation, medical care, contact with family members, and supervision.

The White House has appealed a number of Gee’s earlier rulings regarding migrant detention.

“The government’s attempt to use the pandemic as a subterfuge to carry out its ruthless immigration agenda clearly violates the rule of law and human decency,” Leecia Welch, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, said, adding that it is “a resounding victory for immigrant children.”

Early on, Left-wing groups and media outlets argued as the COVID-19 outbreak spread in the U.S. that detention shelters were potential incubators for the virus and that the administration should just release all illegal migrants held in them.

Federal judges — including Gee — made the same arguments.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a lawyer, to get a judge to do a telephonic hearing, then we’re getting common-sense results in favor of release — during a pandemic,” Karen Tumlin, a Los Angeles-based lawyer and director and founder of the Justice Action Center, told the L.A. Times in March.


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