Citing “unprecedented threats” to their safety due to the coronavirus crisis, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee on Saturday urged the Trump administration to “make continuous efforts” to release thousands of unaccompanied migrant children from Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities. The New York Times reported that “In her ruling on Saturday, the judge declined to order an immediate release of all the detained children, given current travel restrictions and the need to ensure that children are released to suitable sponsors, most often family members.”
“She said, however, that both of the agencies operating migrant children detention facilities must by April 6 provide an accounting of their efforts to release those in custody.” Peter Schey, an attorney in ongoing litigation against the Trump administration, told The Times that “Her order will undoubtedly speed up releases.” And these are releases that need to come as soon as safely possible—last week the administration confirmed that at least three kids in U.S. custody have so far tested positive for coronavirus, with results pending for at least another 15 children.
CNN reported that the three children who were confirmed positive are being held at New York facilities, with the Health and Human Services’ ORR saying that six workers from at least three different facilities in the state have also tested positive for coronavirus. While CNN reported that ORR is no longer placing children in New York for now, it’s also not releasing kids to relatives or other sponsors either.
"For migrant children in detention, who are already more likely to have mental health concerns or may be separated from their family members, the trauma of undergoing solitary quarantine for the virus or simply not receiving adequate information about the potential for infection is likely to exacerbate existing mental health concerns,” Gee said. Pediatricians have said “even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks for children," the American Academy of Pediatrics News reported in 2018.
“Furthermore, a high concentration of sick children, family members, and/or staff members in one community may overwhelm already strained local health care resources, particularly in the rural communities where many ICE and ORR facilities are located,” Gee continued. “Accordingly, experts recommend reducing the size of the population within detention facilities to permit children to be in the custody of family sponsors or to be released with their families and thereby lessen the resource constraints and likelihood of overwhelming contagion in the less-crowded facilities.”
A number of courts have recently ordered the release of some ICE detainees amid this crisis. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Analisa Torres released ten at-risk detainees in New Jersey, saying ICE has ”exhibited, and continue to exhibit, deliberate indifference to Petitioners’ medical need.” That same week, U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter Jr. ordered the release of two men in California, saying “This is an unprecedented time in our nation’s history, filled with uncertainty, fear and anxiety. But in the time of a crisis, our response to those at particularly high risk must be with compassion and not apathy. The government cannot act with a callous disregard for the safety of our fellow human beings.”
Children must be released to relatives or other sponsors as soon as safely possible. “We still don’t know enough about how this pandemic can affect children,” Amnesty International USA’s Denise Bell said in response to Gee’s order. “But what we do know is that children should not be detained, in any circumstances, because of their immigration status. Each day that a child is detained is a day that poses greater and greater risks.”