- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2016

Homeland Security is holding illegal immigrant children for too long, sticking them in jail-like facilities and failing to tell them they can be sent to live with relatives already in the U.S., advocates charged in new court filings Thursday, demanding a special monitor be imposed to oversee all family detention.

Young girls are left to spend the night in the same rooms as teenage boys and older men unrelated to them, some mothers said. Others said that after they were caught at the border, they were sent to overcrowded rooms where the lights were kept on all night, and they had no pillows or blankets for themselves or their children.

The migrants nicknamed holding rooms “hielera,” or ice box, because of the frigid temperatures they said they had to endure all day and night, and dubbed others “perrera,” or dog pound, because of the many pens, separated by chain-link fencing, where migrants were kept.

Lawyers said the conditions violate an order issued last year by Judge Dolly M. Gee, who said illegal immigrant children cannot be treated like prisoners and must be quickly processed and released to family or friends in the U.S. — and in cases where they came with their own parents, the parents too should be released.

“Detained children retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. A detention facility that deprives children of decent food, water and sanitary conditions, and forces them to sleep on a concrete floor, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized society,” Peter A. Schey, a lawyer at the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, wrote in the court papers on behalf of the children. The filing is the latest in a complex legal battle that’s now stretched for three decades, dating back to the Reagan administration.

Under the “Flores settlement” reached during the Clinton administration, the government agreed to special treatment for illegal immigrant children that end up in custody. But the new surge of Central American migrants — chiefly mothers and children — began in 2014, and lawyers for the detainees say they were being mistreated.

Judge Gee agreed, and issued orders last year demanding better treatment. She said the children cannot be kept in secure facilities, and she also ruled that the protections apply not only to unaccompanied children but also to children traveling with a parent.

She ordered a series of changes to the practice at both the border, where new arrivals are held, and in the interior, where families are detained for the long term.

Homeland Security said agents are not flouting Judge Gee’s rulings.

“DHS is complying with the terms of the agreement and the court’s August order even as we appeal that ruling. Our response to the motion will be filed expeditiously,” said Marsha Catron, spokeswoman for the department.

Faced with the surge of Central American families, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson opened new family detention facilities to hold them for deportation hearings and quickly send them back home. His hope was that if families in Central America saw it was futile, fewer would make the attempt at jumping the border.

Judge Gee, however, punched a hole in those plans, saying detention couldn’t be used as a deterrent to crossing, and insisted on a time limit for how long children and their parents could be held.

Immigration officials say they’ve managed to speed up their process so children are pushed through “in an expeditious manner,” and said they’re working to bring down the time families are held as well.

But Mr. Schey filed more than 1,000 pages of documents with declarations from dozens of migrants and their lawyers detailing breaches of the Flores agreement.

Some migrants said they were held for longer than the five days allowed, while others said they were pressured to accept electronic monitoring devices on their ankles rather than being able to post bond, or were urged to sign papers agreeing to be deported.

“With the women who were timid and did not defend themselves, the officers came three or four times to demand that they sign their deportation orders,” one asylum-seeking parent said in a declaration to the court. “If we spoke up for ourselves, they only tried to get us to sign them a couple of times. They like to humiliate us.”

For their part, lawyers said they had trouble getting to their clients, who are often transferred from Texas to Pennsylvania without notice, hindering their cases.

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