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U.S. Judge To Rule On Asylum Challenge Involving Families From Central America


Let's begin this hour with a look at the migrants who have crossed into the U.S. illegally from Central America. We heard a lot last year about minors making that treacherous journey all alone. A legal ruling could have a major impact on mothers, women who have come to the U.S. illegally with their children. A federal judge here in California could force the government to release as many as 2,000 of these mothers and children. NPR's Richard Gonzales has been following this story, and he joins us. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Richard, this judge has ruled that the Obama administration has not provided adequate conditions at detention facilities that these migrants are being held in, but why is a federal court weighing in on this?

GONZALES: Well, this case is in front of U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles, and it's being closely watched by virtually anyone who follows immigration law. And as you mentioned, last summer there was a surge of people crossing the border, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - the unaccompanied minors. At the same time, there was an almost equal number of young mothers with their very young children making that trip, and the government considers them to be family units. And it's treating them differently than many of the unaccompanied minors, and that's caused a lawsuit that we're talking about here.

MONTAGNE: And how so? What is the difference?

GONZALES: Well, under the law, the government is required to release an unaccompanied minor to the custody of a parent or a relative, pending a court hearing. But in the cases of these mothers with children, the government has detained these people in three facilities. Two of them are in Texas; one in Pennsylvania. And advocates for these families say that the government is in violation of a legal settlement it entered into back in 1997, and that case is called Flores v. Meese. And under the terms of that settlement, if a minor has to be held, the government is supposed to provide the least restrictive environment possible. That includes medical care, education, opportunities for exercise; basically, humane treatment. But advocates filed a lawsuit saying conditions in these family detention centers are just horrendous. They were overcrowded. There was a lack of nutrition and hygiene. There were even reports of children being forced to sleep standing up because they could find no room on a hard, concrete floor to lie down on. So the lawsuit, which was brought by the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, says that these detention centers are unlicensed and detrimental to the welfare of the children.

MONTAGNE: What is the administration's argument then for keeping these family detention centers open if they're so bad?

GONZALES: Lawyers for the administration say that these residential centers provide a key function in just keeping the family unit together in what they deem is safe and humane conditions, pending possible deportation proceedings. Many of the women are applying for asylum, and remember that language about keeping minors in the least restrictive environment possible. So they're releasing the unaccompanied minors, keeping mothers with children, and that's what the lawsuit is all about.

MONTAGNE: And clearly, the court does not actually agree with that approach.

GONZALES: No, not at all. About two weeks ago, District Judge Dolly Gee issued a tentative ruling, saying that this policy of holding these women and children violates the terms of the court settlement under Flores v. Meese, and she gave both sides 30 days to negotiate an agreement to implement her ruling. Now, according to a report in the McClatchy newspapers, it appears that the judge is prepared to give the government some choices. It can release the families. It can release the children, but continue to detain the mothers. Or it can completely change the way it houses these families. And now government lawyers and attorneys for the families will meet in the next few days to figure out how to comply with Judge Gee's ruling.

MONTAGNE: That NPR's Richard Gonzales. Thanks very much.

GONZALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.