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Women’s Refugee Commission Responds to Flores Ruling

Washington, DC – A federal district court judge issued an order yesterday requiring the government to comply with the longstanding Flores Settlement Agreement. Originally settled in 1997, the agreement governs the treatment and practices toward migrant children in U.S. immigration custody.  The court confirmed in a 2015 decision that the settlement agreement clearly apply to all children in immigration custody, regardless of whether they arrived unaccompanied or accompanied by a parent and that conditions in border patrol stations and the Department of Homeland Security’s use of family facilities to detain children was in violation of the agreement. In her decision yesterday, Judge Dolly M. Gee of the U.S. Central District of California found that many aspects of current border custody conditions in which children are detained remain completely inadequate, and reaffirmed the settlement’s requirements that children in custody should be assessed for and released where possible, or, when applicable, held in non-secure and licensed facilities appropriate for their care.

The order comes nearly two years after Judge Gee first found the U.S. government to be woefully out of compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement. In 2014, U.S. authorities responded to an increase in the number of parents and children, primarily from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, seeking asylum at the U.S. border with an unprecedented increase in the use of family detention facilities in which mothers are detained with their children while going through the stages of the asylum process. Despite the requirements of the Flores Settlement Agreement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continue to hold children seeking protection in unacceptable conditions in U.S. border facilities and continue to detain – in some cases for months or years – families in facilities that are unlicensed and secure.

The Women’s Refugee Commission and other advocates have for years maintained that there is no humane way to detain families. Despite heavy opposition, and a recommendation from DHS’s own Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers discouraging family detention, DHS continues this practice.

The vast majority of families seeking protection at the U.S. border can be released to family members or other community sponsors as they pursue their immigration case. In addition to release, alternatives to detention such as the recently terminated Family Case Management Program, have been shown to be effective for mitigating concerns about flight risk or a lack of community ties.

According to Katharina Obser, Senior Program Officer in the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission:

“It is not illegal to seek asylum, and the recognition that border custody conditions are inadequate and the decision that minors should not be held in unlicensed, secure detention facilities for extended periods of time are victories for vulnerable families and children seeking safety in our country. It is high time that we end the shameful practice of family detention. DHS should immediately comply with Judge Gee’s order and ensure that children are not inappropriately detained. Wherever possible, children seeking protection with their parents at our borders should be released with their parents or legal guardians and not separated from their parent in order to be released. The alternative to family detention should not be family separation, and ICE should reinstate community-based options for release that will not tear families apart. WRC urges DHS to comply with Flores as well as to respect the fundamental value of family unity without delay.”