A federal judge on Friday (June 26) ordered the U.S. government to release children detained in three Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE)-operated family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, CNN reports. 

The ruling by Judge Dolly M. Gee of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California states that migrant children must be freed either along with their parents or to “available suitable sponsors or other available COVID-free non-congregate settings” by July 17 due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to CNN. Referencing the rapid spread of the virus in two of the three detention facilities, Gee said in her order that the centers are “on fire” and efforts to remove the children must be made with “deliberate speed.” 

“Although progress has been made,” Gee wrote in her order, “the Court is not surprised that [COVID-19] has arrived at both the [Family Residential Centers] and [Office of Refugee Resettlement] facilities, as health professionals have warned all along.” 

Reports CNN:

As of June 8, there were 124 children in ICE custody, according to the ruling. The ruling, which calls for children to be let go by July 17, applies to children who have resided at the three facilities for more than 20 days.

…As of Friday afternoon, there are around 8,858 detainees in ICE custody who have been tested for coronavirus and there are 751 confirmed cases in custody, according to the agency’s statistics.

“This is a true life and death matter for children being held against [their] will during a raging pandemic,” said Domingo Garcia, National President of the League of United Latin American Citizens, in a statement posted on the group’s website. “Innocent families’ lives have been destroyed waiting at the border for help that never came and for many parents who had no choice but to watch helplessly as their children were being taken from them. Now, COVID-19 has been sweeping through the detention centers at an alarming rate and we need to get the children out as fast as possible.” 

Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, praised Judge Gee’s order in a statement published on Law 360. She urged ICE to comply with the ruling by releasing parents from family detention as well. “It’s equally unacceptable to attempt to rip children from their families by offering parents the impossible choice of remaining in detention with their children or allowing the government to separate them from their child without assurance of reunification,” she said.

In response to Judge Gee’s ruling, ICE said in a statement obtained by CNN that the agency “is currently reviewing the most recent order issued by the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California yesterday evening.”

According to CNN:

Advocates and immigration lawyers shared anecdotes of detained families distraught over their encounters with ICE, describing meetings between parents and ICE officers regarding whether their children would remain in custody with the parent or be turned over to a sponsor in the US.

Families detained in all three ICE detention facilities—Berks in Pennsylvania, South Texas (Dilley) and Karnes County Family Residential Centers in Texas—shared similar stories. Children at the facilities range from 1 year old to 17 years old, according to lawyers and advocates who provide legal assistance.

“The Administration must stop using this public health crisis as a means for implementing unlawful and inhumane immigration policies. In these extraordinary times, human suffering need not be compounded by locking up families or instilling fear in the hearts of migrant parents,” read [a] letter, directed to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matt Albence.

Holly Cooper, co-director of the University of California, Davis Immigration Law Clinic, told NPR she is very happy with Judge Gee’s ruling. The problem, she said, is that “ICE makes a real horrible guardian of children … and so far ICE has opted to keep children detained … during a global pandemic.”

With the July 17 deadline quickly approaching, Cooper said, “What we’re hoping is that ICE will do the humane thing and not separate any child from their parents because that’s what the children want. That’s what our class members want. That’s what the advocates want. That’s what the parents want.”