Tanzina Vega: It's The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega and it's good to be with you. On Friday, US District Court Judge Dolly Gee ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release migrant children who have been detained by the agency for more than 20 days. Judge Gee set July 17th as the deadline for their release.
At least 11 children and parents have tested positive for COVID 19 at a family detention center in Karnes City, Texas, and four employees at another family detention center in South Texas have also tested positive for coronavirus. Advocates worry that releasing children without their parents will lead to families being separated again. Joining me now is Nicole Narea immigration reporter for Vox. Nicole, thanks for joining us again.
Nicole: Thanks for having me Tanzina.
Tanzina: What prompted Judge Gee to set the deadline and ask that these children be released now?
Nicole: I think it was the 11 positive cases that were reported at the Karnes County residential center in South Texas that really increased the urgency of the situation and family detention centers. There's only three of these detention centers for families that exist nationwide in Texas and Pennsylvania.
Judge Gee has already issued several orders prior to this ordering ICE to release immigrant children from custody or else explain why they must continue to be detained. In April, she also ordered ICE to conduct individualized release assessments for all of the children in custody. I think it really was the positive cases that broke the camel's back here.
Tanzina: According to the judge’s order, 124 children were being held in ICE detention centers as of June 8th. Nicole, how's the process of releasing children going to actually work? As we mentioned at the top, there are concerns that these children may be separated from their parents. How real are those concerns right now?
Nicole: ICE right now is currently evaluating how they're going to comply with the order, but we've seen in terms of their compliance with the prior orders from Judge Gee that they have tried to separate families. ICE officials asked parents to choose between staying with their children in detention indefinitely or allowing their children to be released into the custody of family members, sponsors like a foster family, or being sent to the department of health and human services.
We've seen them before in terms of complying with these court orders from Judge Gee trying to separate families. It's not clear how they're going to implement this immediate order, but we know in the past that these children haven't ended up in the best situation.
Tanzina: When it comes to the children and parents who've tested positive for coronavirus, what do we know about the medical treatment that ICE is providing or has provided to them? Are they given medical treatment? What's the extent of that?
Nicole: As of now, it's pretty inconsistent across detention centers nationwide, but some of these family residential centers have started testing people for coronavirus upon their arrival in the detention center and isolating those people from the rest of the detainee population so that coronavirus doesn't spread through the detention centers. That has been a huge problem across the entire system. About 2,500 people across ICE detention have tested positive.
Some of those people have been released. Others have been put in isolation. In terms of dealing with this pandemic, they have been making some efforts to isolate detainees finally. It wasn't the case in the beginning of the pandemic. If they are found to be testing positive for coronavirus, the medical care seems to be adequate based on the results of an independent investigation of conditions in these family centers but it's still a concern when ICE officials aren't necessarily abiding by social distancing or wearing face masks consistently. It remains to be seen, how well ICE is really complying with these court orders.
Tanzina: Nicole, what have conditions been like in these family detention centers during the pandemic? We haven't heard as much about the effects that the pandemic and coronavirus are having in these areas so far.
Nicole: ICE has issued national guidelines on social distancing and sanitation practices and protocols for wearing face masks but the implementation has been pretty consistent and it's taken a long time to grow into a faction in many facilities. Many detainees have been filing lawsuits seeking their release. Some of them have been effective about 500 people have been released by court order basically challenging the conditions in ICE detention.
Some facilities, as I said before, have started testing people upon their arrival to the facility and isolating them from other detainees. The agency has also started releasing some medically vulnerable immigrants after some lawsuits were filed but it wasn't doing so at the outset of the pandemic, which caused a little of anxiety for the detainees.
Watchdogs have reported that staff don't always wear face masks and have violated social distancing protocols because you have to remember that centers aren't designed to effectuate social distancing. Oftentimes beds are inches from each other. They have congregate dining settings. Even going outside, there's small areas where they can socialize outside. These detention centers just really aren't set-up to be effective for social distancing and we're really seeing the impact of that in terms of the increase in positive cases.
Tanzina: Nicole, there are a number of pending lawsuits concerning the release of immigrants from ICE custody because of COVID-19. Do we know where any of those stand right now?
Nicole: Some have been successful in leading to the release of some immigrants, but I'd say that the case immediately before Judge Gee has been one of the major cases challenging the detention of immigrant children, but there are also other lawsuits challenging detention conditions for adults. You also have to remember that the protections legally that exists for migrant children in detention far surpass those that exist for adults.
It's all thanks to this decades, old settlement agreement known as the Flores settlement, which among other provisions mandates that children can't be held in adult detention facilities for longer than 20 days and also would provide things like toothbrushes and soap. Those kinds of standards just don't exist in adult detention facilities. The prospects of adults being able to succeed in their challenges, it's a much steeper climb for them than it is for people challenging the detention of immigrant children in this situation.
Tanzina: Nicole Narea is an immigration reporter for Vox. Nicole, thanks for joining us.
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