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After Court Ruling, 3 Immigration Detention Centers Could Close


The United States government has been using special detention centers to hold thousands of undocumented women and children. These are people who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in high numbers last year. The detention centers created for them have now come under scrutiny. Late Friday night, a federal judge ruled they do not meet legal standards. NPR's Alexandra Starr reports the facilities could soon be shut down.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: The ruling was a setback for the Obama administration's immigration policies. Federal District Court Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the current policy of detaining immigrant children and their mothers is unlawful. She says it violates the standards for child detention that were agreed to in the case Flores v. Meese, which was settled 18 years ago.

CARLOS HOLGUIN: The court really did little more than to say, you know, follow the agreement.

STARR: Carlos Holguin is general counsel at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. He was one of the lead attorneys on the original Flores case.

HOLGUIN: It came to our attention that the facilities were not licensed to care for dependent children, which is a requirement of the Flores settlement.

STARR: The centers do provide schooling for underage detainees and accommodations like high chairs and cribs for babies and toddlers. But they're secured like prisons, which Flores prohibits. The settlement also stipulates that children shouldn't be detained at all if they can be released to family members or guardians. The judge said the administration hadn't adhered to that. The government started holding parents and children in much larger numbers after last summer's surge.

HOLGUIN: So from about 80 people, the population swelled to over 2,000.

STARR: Today, it's about 1,700 immigrant parents and children. There are three facilities where they are held. Two are in Texas, and one is in Pennsylvania. The Obama administration argued that the Flores regulations did not pertain to children who crossed the border accompanied by an adult. Judge Gee rejected that argument.

RANJANA NATARAJAN: The court said, unequivocally, that all children are covered.

STARR: Ranjana Natarajan directs the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. Deterring other mothers and children from making the journey across the border into the United States is a big reason the administration has given for detaining families. Ira Mehlman is the media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that advocates for stricter immigration controls. He says that if the decision is implemented, it will send the wrong message.

IRA MEHLMAN: We ought to be not encouraging more people to put their lives and their children's lives at risks by making this dangerous journey.

STARR: Natarajan says that in her experience most Central Americans come because they're fleeing horrific violence. She believes the government can employ more humane and cost-effective ways than detention to ensure people show up for their immigration hearings.

NATARAJAN: Such as a monthly reporting or such as a payment of bond.

STARR: In a statement to NPR this weekend, a spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security said they were disappointed with the court's decision and are reviewing it in consultation with the Department of Justice. The judge gave the government until August 3 to submit a plan for carrying out the ruling within 90 days. The government could appeal. But Matthew Archambeault, an attorney who has represented immigrants at the family facility in Pennsylvania, thinks most of the detainees will be released to family members in the U.S.

MATTHEW ARCHAMBEAULT: The doors aren't swinging open today. But within those 90 days, I would believe both sides would kind of get together and figure out how family detention is going to end.

STARR: The two sides actually tried to come to an agreement for almost two months. Before she issued her ruling, the judge asked the advocates and the government to reach a negotiated settlement. But the talks broke down. With the ruling, however, there will be more pressure on the government to move away from family detention policies they've implemented and defended for the past year. Alexander Starr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexandra Starr