Congressional Democrats urged the Trump administration on Wednesday to promptly release all families currently held in immigration detention, joining advocates and lawyers in calling for parents and children to be allowed to leave together as the coronavirus continues to spread.
In a letter to top Department of Homeland Security officials, 80 House lawmakers, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said officials should not ask migrant parents to choose between allowing their children to be released without them or continuing to face indefinite detention.
"Family separation should never be this country's policy. Medical organizations have long stated that the practice creates extraordinary harm to children," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Matthew Albence. "Detention of children for any amount of time, even with their parents, causes physical harm and irreparable trauma."
"We call upon ICE to act with compassion and release families together," the representatives added.
The letter is a direct response toby the federal judge overseeing the government's compliance with the landmark Flores Settlement Agreement, which includes certain mandates for the care of migrant children in U.S. custody. Citing recently reported among detained families, as well as allegedly lax masking and social distancing enforcement at two family detention facilities in Texas, U.S. Judge Dolly Gee ordered ICE to release all minors who have been held for more than 20 days.
Because the 1997 Flores agreement affords protections only to minors, Gee does not have the authority to mandate the release of their parents. She gave ICE two options to comply with her order by July 17. The agency can release minors alone to sponsors, as long as the parents consent to being separated. Or it can remove the families from detention together, using its discretionary authority to grant parole to release the parents.
Following another order from Gee in April, ICE asked parents at its three family detention facilities whether they would agree to be separated from their children. In, the agency said it denied parole to most children in its custody because parents did not "wish to separate," among other reasons.
Other than noting it is reviewing Gee's order, ICE has yet to say how it will comply with it. But lawyers representing the approximately 124 minors in ICE custody and their parents fear the agency will again present families with the question of separation and submit the results as a way of complying with Gee's directive.
Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said such a move would cause unnecessary emotional upheaval. "No parent should be presented with that choice. It's cruel and unnecessary," Castro, a Democrat, told CBS News. "We are going to continue to press ICE to do the right thing in this situation."
"The parents don't pose a security risk and family separation would be a shock and cruelty to the children and their parents," he added.
A court filing by the independent monitor that reviews ICE's compliance with the Flores settlement revealed last week that 11 members of migrant families at the Karnes County Residential Center tested positive for the coronavirus. The independent monitor also reported at least four coronavirus cases among ICE employees and contractors at another family detention facility in Dilley, Texas.
There have been no reports of coronavirus cases at the third ICE family detention facility, located in Pennsylvania. More than 2,600 ICE detainees at adult-only detention centers have tested positive, according to the agency's latest tally. Some have been released or deported. Nearly 800 of the detainees who tested positive remain under isolation or medical monitoring.
Earlier this month, Democratic lawmakers, including Castro, visited the Dilley facility. In their letter on Wednesday, lawmakers revealed that some of them had been exposed during the visit to an ICE an employee who tested positive for the virus.
Citing his visit, the pandemic and other factors, Castro said the U.S. should reconsider whether family immigration detention is necessary. If the Trump administration succeeds in implementing a regulation that would scrap the Flores agreement but that is currently held up in court, the U.S. would become one of the few countries in the developed world to detain migrant families indefinitely.
"It begs the question about why these families need to be kept in prison," Castro said. "Let's be clear, that's what this is."
Along with appointing "reformers" at the Department of Homeland Security, Castro said former Vice President Joe Biden should examine this practice if elected in November.
"He has to find an alternative to detention for these families," Castro said.