FILE - Children lie inside a pod at the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas, March 30, 2021. Health and Human Services belatedly, aided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, opened about a dozen emergency holding centers within about a month to process unaccompanied children. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, Pool, File)

It’s been three years in the making, but at last, Federal judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles recently gave final approval to a detailed settlement setting the standards for the conditions of detention of accompanied and unaccompanied minors in the El Paso and Rio Grande sectors. These sectors of the US Border Patrol in Texas account for eighty-five percent of all detained minors.

“This settlement will bring an end to the appalling and sometimes deadly detention policies the Trump administration adopted against thousands of vulnerable immigrant children. President Trump’s cruel and senseless policies terrorized thousands of detained immigrant children causing unnecessary suffering and trauma they may never overcome” said Peter Schey, President of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. Schey is the lead counsel who negotiated the agreement.

There was a public backlash when media images captured children being separated from their parents and the cramped conditions they were forced into. Worse, it was learned children were ill and dying and were victims of sexual abuse during the Trump administration.

“President Trump’s forced separation of children from their parents and mass detention in unsafe and unsanitary cages was a stain on the moral fabric of the nation and the settlement now approved by the court will at least prevent his cruel and shameful policies from being repeated by the Biden administration,” said Shey.

In an interview with the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol Newspaper, Schey said there are currently 10,000 immigrant children in the custody of the federal government. Schey explained that these children are all unaccompanied minors apprehended by the Border Patrol and then transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. These minors are detained until they can be placed with relatives here in the United States.

“Approximately a year and a half ago, we were successful in convincing the Biden administration to end the policies of both the Obama administration and the Trump administration of detaining accompanied minors with their parents. And the Biden administration agreed to begin to promptly release parents – of these parents with minor children. That population is now being released by the Border Patrol once they had been processed by the Border Patrol.”

In their previous 2019 court filing based on numerous declarations obtained after interviewing detained children, the Center’s lawyers argued that the Trump administration’s detention facilities “could be compared to torture facilities” because of “extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food.”

This unprecedented agreement grew out of that petition filed in the federal court in Los Angeles in June 2019 on behalf of thousands of immigrant minors detained by the Trump administration in cages, many of whom had been separated from their parents.

It was filed by lawyers with the Los Angeles Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law who argued that the Trump administration’s mass detention of children violated the terms of a 1997 settlement they had reached with the government requiring that immigrant children be detained in safe and sanitary conditions.

The 1997 settlement set the national standards for the conditions of detention and prompt release of all immigrant children. The Trump administration twice sought to end the 1997 settlement but was rebuffed by the federal court.

The Center presented evidence that the children at border patrol facilities were not provided with soap, clean and dry clothing, regular showers, toothbrushes, or towels and alleged that “bathroom facilities are filthy and there is no soap to wash hands after using the toilet.” Their evidence included declarations that children and infants were forced to wear soiled clothing, the food provided to children was inadequate and often inedible, children were often forced to sleep on cold concrete floors, and the flu and other sicknesses were rampant, but there was no access to emergency medical care.

The 61-page agreement was reached following two years of negotiations between government officials, the children’s lawyers and medical experts. 

The settlement requires that the border patrol treat minors in custody with “dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors,” and that it places each detained minor “in the least restrictive setting appropriate to the class member’s age and special needs.” explained Schey.

It also requires that except when operationally infeasible, minors apprehended with an adult family member “shall remain with that family member” during their time in border patrol custody. If a minor is temporarily separated from an accompanying relative they have the right to visitation with that relative while in border patrol custody.

“For the first time, the settlement that we have reached sets out very detailed standards and protocols for the conditions of detention, and in most circumstances prohibits the separation of children from their accompanying adults, whether it’s parents or other relatives,” said Schey.

“The settlement sets forth conditions, which include a wide range of criteria: medical exams, medical treatment, emergency medical treatment, blankets, mats, temperature controls, adequate and age-appropriate nutritious meals, change of clothing, access to hygiene products, access to showers, so a pretty wide range of protocols that the Border Patrol will have to follow, at least in its stations and sectors that are in the Texas area,” said Schey.

“This settlement will set the national standards or at least the standards that must be followed by border patrol facilities in Texas for both the accompanied and unaccompanied minors.”  

Border patrol facilities will be required to maintain a stock of clothing in a variety of sizes that can be distributed to detained minors. Parents detained with infants must be provided items such as swaddling blankets and diapers.

The settlement also requires the appointment of an independent medical monitor, and the parties have agreed on expert Dr. Paul Weiss, a professor at Stanford University who specializes in healthcare issues involving large numbers of vulnerable children.

The settlement now requires that border patrol agents be trained regarding the agreement’s terms and display a poster and show a video to minors describing their rights and requires that minors or their accompanying relatives be provided a list of local free legal services.

These major changes should go into effect in the next couple of weeks. Schey said they plan to initiate monitoring of facilities in Arizona and California.  

“If we determine that there are violations of the 1997 settlement, we would then be able to go to the government and prepare a motion to the court challenging those conditions,

“All children deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and special concern for their unique vulnerability,” said Schey.