Nation & World

Federal judge orders Obama administration to release detained mothers and children

A federal judge ruled late Friday night that the Obama administration has slightly more than two months to begin releasing hundreds of migrant mothers and children who have been locked up in government family detention centers as they await their asylum hearings.

In a 15-page ruling that quoted Mahatma Gandhi, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in California delivered a scolding rebuke of the government’s expanded use of family detention centers. But she also granted the government one of its key requests for additional time – as much as 20 days – to continue to hold mothers and children under extenuating circumstances like last year’s surge of nearly 70,000 Central American families into the United States.

“This is a historic decision,” said Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration and asylum law at Cornell Law School. “If it stands, it will force major changes to the government’s family detention program.”

Gee rejected a last minute plea by the administration to reconsider her July ruling that the government acted in violation of a 1997 settlement regarding child migrants. She called the government’s arguments improper and speculative.

“Defendants submitted a 51-page brief that served primarily as a vehicle for a thinly-veiled motion for reconsideration, rehashing many of the same arguments which the Court previously rejected,” Gee wrote about the government in her ruling.

Homeland Security officials could not be immediately reached for comment, but they are expected to appeal the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. But they’re also likely relieved. Gee did not issue a blanket order prohibiting the detention of all families under any circumstances beyond five days as they had feared.

Starting on Oct. 24, the judge said the government must release detained mothers and children as quickly as possible. But what she added in Friday’s ruling, which was not clearly stated in her previous decisions, was that the government could exceed the five-day requirement under some extenuating circumstances like last year’s surge of migrants.

Benjamin Mizer, principal deputy assistant attorney general, had written in an earlier administration brief that five days was not enough time to conduct health screenings or to determine whether family members are eligible to remain in the United States.

The Obama administration currently holds more than 1,800 parents and children awaiting court hearings in three family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas, and Berks County, Pa.

The Obama administration has already been forced to release hundreds of migrant mothers and children – some of whom had been locked up for more than a year – as the program came under intense congressional and media scrutiny.

The ruling is likely to divide immigration advocates between those who see it as a major victory and others who feel the added flexibility given the government will lead to more problems for detained mothers and their children.