A dreaded deadline is rapidly approaching for hundreds of immigrant families currently held in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As the coronavirus pandemic continues pose a significantly higher threat to incarcerated populations, parents have to decide by Friday (July 17) whether they will separate from their children in an effort to keep them safe from the virus, or stay detained with them, CNN reports. 

As Colorlines previously reported, a June ruling by Judge Dolly M. Gee stated 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.” 

Shay Fluharty of Proyecto Dilley, which provides legal services to families at the Dilley, Texas, detention center, spoke to CNN about the dilemma facing parents. “Moms are trying to figure out how their kids are most safe,” she said. “Is it most safe to go to a stranger? Is it most safe to continue to be in detention as the virus is getting closer and closer?”

Reports CNN:

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

A federal judge in Washington D.C. on Monday (July 13) went back and forth over whether or not families should be released together amid the pandemic, according to CNN. He said a ruling likely would not come before Friday, which means parents and guardians are forced to “make a decision without knowing if an order might come down the road to release them together,” CNN reports. 

According to CNN, Gee’s ruling states that as of June 8 there were 124 children in ICE custody. Her ruling ordering the U.S. government to release children by July 17 applies to those who have been held at the three facilities for more than 20 days.

As Colorlines reported on June 29, many advocates, including Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, 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 a statement posted on Law 360.

Manoj Govindaiah, director of litigation at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), told CNN, ”We are significantly opposed to the idea of children being released to a different sponsor when their parents are here in the U.S. It’s like a sanctioned family separation all over again.” 

According to CNN, “ICE is unable to comment due to ongoing litigation, said an ICE spokesperson, adding that the agency is in compliance with all federal court orders related to COVID-19.”