Agents can detain illegal immigrant parents who try to break into the U.S. with their children, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, delivering a victory to one of the Obama administration’s remaining get-tough immigration policies.
But the court ruled that the children themselves must be released from custody quickly and sent to live with relatives or other sponsors — a blow to the administration’s argument.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said a 1997 agreement on government treatment of unaccompanied children caught at the border should also apply to children who are traveling as a family, with a parent.
The ruling will push the administration to release still more of the children surging from Central America, but allows agents to keep the parents in detention, where the goal is to give them their day in front of an immigration judge and then deport them, if they’re not granted any relief.
“The settlement does not explicitly provide any rights to adults,” Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz said in the unanimous opinion for the court.
The issue came to a head in 2014, when tens of thousands of parents and children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala streamed north, fleeing economic poverty and rising violence back home, and enticed into the U.S. by lax enforcement policies.
With fewer than 100 beds available for family detention, Homeland Security officials had to release most of the families, which then disappeared into the shadows along with 11 million other illegal immigrants.
Homeland Security tried to ramp up its capacity, opening more detention facilities, but activists said they were inhumane places for children.
U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee agreed and ordered better conditions. She also ordered that the children be processed and released quickly, expanding a 1997 agreement known as the Flores settlement, which previously applied only children who came without parents.
Judge Gee also said that since the agreement said children should be released to their parents, it made sense to release the parents too — giving the entire family a way out of detention.
The administration warned that would spark a new wave of illegal immigrants, and the numbers bear that out.
One top Justice Department immigration lawyer even said illegal immigrants are abducting children on the trip north so they can appear to be families and take advantage of the lax policy.
In the wake of Wednesday’s ruling, activists urged the Obama administration to release parents anyway.
“This ruling confirms what we have known for a long time: that detention facilities are no place for children,” said Olga Byrne, a lawyer at Human Rights First. “The government is not complying with its obligations under Flores, and should immediately end this inhumane and unnecessary practice.”