Law360, Washington (April 27, 2020, 8:50 PM EDT) -- A D.C. federal judge ordered the government Monday to apply certain standards laid out in a landmark consent decree that established bedrock standards of care for migrant children in custody to adults held in three residential detention centers in Pennsylvania and Texas amid the coronavirus outbreak.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled during a teleconference hearing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement must deliver by May 15 an account of what's being done to expedite the release of adult detainees as well as efforts to ensure those detained at facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases are being protected.
The decision came amid allegations by immigration advocacy groups that ICE has exhibited indifference to families at high risk of contracting the disease and that no appropriate steps are being taken to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Rapid Defense Network, ALDEA — the People's Justice Center, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services last month sued federal immigration authorities, demanding the immediate release of dozens of migrant families at detention centers in Berks County, Pennsylvania, and Dilley and Karnes City, Texas.
In his ruling Monday, Judge Boasberg once again declined to grant immediate release of the asylum-seekers. But the judge applied some conditions in the landmark 1997 federal consent decree known as the Flores settlement agreement, which established bedrock standards of care for migrant children in custody. The decree prohibits the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from detaining migrant children beyond the 20-day limit.
Judge Boasberg expanded that holding to cover their parents, but stopped short of mandating the government to explain why an adult has been in detention for more than 20 days.
The judge noted that while adults are not protected under Flores, the government has been providing some information on adults in detention to U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee of California, who has been overseeing the consent decree as part of a long-running class action.
"I think this is sufficient at this point to ensure the constitutional treatment of" detainees, the judge said of his order during the teleconference session.
Nonetheless, Judge Boasberg indicated that ICE has been making substantial efforts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus at the facilities, pointing out that the three centers are at least 16% under capacity. So far, none of the centers have recorded cases of COVID-19, the government told the court.
"Conditions are definitely improving," the judge said. "That's highly significant to me."
Monday's order builds upon previous decisions by the judge, who instructed ICE to provide the court with statistics on the number of detained migrants seeking asylum; testing and treatment plans; and compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance for congregate settings such as detention centers.
Vanessa Molina, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney representing ICE, argued against applying Flores in this case. She maintained that it would be improper to demand that the agency explain why adults are in detention for more than 20 days because the consent decree was never meant to include parents or adults.
Detention is a part of the removal process pending a deportation proceeding, Molina continued, and the plaintiffs have not demonstrated their burden of showing why they should be released. And there's no finding in this case that ICE had been deliberately indifferent to the medical needs of asylum-seekers with COVID-19 risk factors, she said.
"ICE is authorized to detain the adults pending deportation proceedings," the government attorney doubled down.
Judge Boasberg responded that the government has been producing detention information on minors to the California federal judge and asked, "Why would there be any objections … [to provide similar data to the D.C. district court] for the adults?"
Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP partner Susan Baker Manning, an attorney for the migrant families, conceded to the government's argument that detention is authorized as part of the deportation process. But the lawyer contended that her clients are being held in unsanitary conditions, that they are not subject to mandatory detention, and that they are not a danger to the community because they have no criminal histories.
Manning had urged Judge Boasberg to include the 20-day condition because it "is a perfect and reasonable benchmark to understand why migrants are being held in facilities where they are at risk of contracting COVID-19." But the judge declined to do so.
The judge has set a May 20 teleconference hearing for the parties to discuss the latest developments in the litigation.
The migrants are represented by Susan Baker Manning of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Manoj Govindaiah and Curtis F.J. Doebbler of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Amy Maldonado of The Law Office of Amy Maldonado, and Sarah T. Gillman and Gregory P. Copeland of Rapid Defense Network.
The government is represented by Vanessa Molina of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division's Office of Immigration Litigation and Daniel Franklin Van Horn of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia.
The case is O.M.G. et al. v. Wolf et al., case number 1:20-cv-00786, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Bruce Goldman.
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