SAN DIEGO — A federal judge in Los Angeles said Friday that she will appoint an independent monitor to evaluate conditions for immigrant children in U.S border facilities in Texas after a spate of reports of spoiled food, insufficient water and frigid conditions faced by the youngsters and their parents.
Judge Dolly M. Gee said she reached her decision after seeing a “disconnect” between U.S. government monitors’ assessment of conditions in facilities in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and the accounts of more than 200 immigrant children and their parents detailing numerous problems.
“It seems like there continue to be persistent problems,” she said during a hearing in a longstanding settlement agreement case focusing on the care of children in government custody. “I need to appoint an independent monitor to give me an objective viewpoint about what is going on at the facilities.”
Gee’s decision came as the Trump administration worked to reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under a second, separate court mandate out of San Diego. Hundreds remained separated as the government worked to clean up the effects of its policy that prompted global outrage and a presidential order halting separations.
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Peter Schey, an attorney who represents immigrant children detained by the U.S government, said he hopes Gee’s decision will spur U.S border authorities to make improvements to other centers.
He said in court that problems have worsened with children now spending between three and six days in U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities, where they were previously held between one and three days.
“We’ve seen an intensification with all the chaos the administration has caused,” Schey, who has long requested an independent monitor, said.
Sarah Fabian, a Justice Department attorney, opposed the appointment without having an opportunity to respond to the accounts of children and parents collected by immigrant advocates at facilities in June and July. She said that border authorities, for example, provide water fountains and jugs in cells and that facility conditions must comply with agency policies.
“We believe we haven’t had a chance for a full evidentiary hearing on this,” Fabian said.
Both sides have until Aug. 10 to agree on a proposed monitor. If they can’t, each will make suggestions to the judge and she will choose one.
Earlier Friday, Homeland Security officials said they had reunified all eligible parents with children — but noted many others were not eligible because they had been released from immigration custody, are in their home countries or chose not to be reunited.
More than 1,800 children 5 years and older had been reunited with parents or sponsors as of Thursday. That included 1,442 children who were returned to parents who were in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, and another 378 who were released under a variety of other circumstances.
But about 700 more remain separated, including 431 whose parents were deported, officials say. Those reunions take more time, effort and paperwork as authorities fly children back to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Updated figures were not made public, but new data was expected to be released at a Friday hearing in San Diego before the judge overseeing the reunification process.
“The administration will continue to make every effort to reunify eligible adults with their children,” a Homeland Security statement said.
San Diego federal judge Dana Sabraw, who ordered the reunifications, must decide how to address the hundreds of still-separated children whose parents have been deported, as well as how much time, if any, reunified parents should be allowed to file asylum claims.
He will also consider the American Civil Liberties Union request to give reunified parents at least a week to consider if they wish to seek asylum. The government opposes the waiting period, and Sabraw has put a hold on deporting reunified families while the issue is decided.
The federal government was supposed to reunify more than 2,500 children who were separated from their parents under the policy that criminally prosecuted anyone caught crossing illegally.
President Donald Trump ended the practice of taking children from parents and Sabraw ordered the government to reunite all the families by Thursday, but said there would be some flexibility given the enormity of the effort.
In most cases, the families are released and parents typically get ankle-monitoring bracelets and court dates to appear before an immigration judge. Faith-based and other groups have provided meals, clothing, legal advice, plane and bus tickets and even new shoe laces for both parents and children.
One such group, Annunciation House in El Paso, has received over 320 families since July 17, many of them coming in for less than a day before they’re flown out to their intended destinations.
Maria, a 20-year-old Guatemalan woman who was separated from her 4-year-old son in mid-June, said in an interview that he son was well-cared for while he was away and was his normal self since they were reunited in El Paso Thursday night.
She spoke anonymously without providing her last name to a reporter because Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia does not allow most shelter residents to disclose that information to protect their safety. All shelter residents have fled violence in their home countries, he said.
Maria said she was elated to be reunited with her son after spending weeks agonizing over him.
“I couldn’t live without him,” she said.