Migrants are taken into custody by officials at the Texas-Mexico border, AP Photo/Eric Gay


LOS ANGELES, Jun 28, 2024 (AP): A federal judge on Friday approved the Biden administration’s request to partially end a nearly three-decade-old agreement to provide court oversight of how the government cares for migrant children in its custody.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that special court supervision may end at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which takes custody of migrant children after they have been in Border Patrol custody for up to 72 hours. They are placed in a vast network of holding facilities and generally released to close relatives.

The Justice Department argued that new safeguards, which are set to take effect Monday, meet and in some ways exceed standards set forth in the so-called Flores settlement agreement, which first established court supervision over custody facilities in 1997. The judge for the most part agreed, carving out exceptions for certain types of facilities for children with more acute needs.

Lawyers for child migrants strenuously opposed the administration’s request, arguing that the federal government has failed to develop a regulatory framework in states, such as Texas and Florida, that revoked licenses of facilities caring for child migrants or may do so in the future. The judge rejected those concerns, saying the new regulations are sufficient to replace court supervision at those unlicensed facilities.

Leecia Welch, deputy litigation director at Children’s Rights, which represents children in the case, disagreed with the ruling.

“It is disappointing and premature to allow partial termination — before the federal government has set up an alternative to the crucial protections offered by state licensing — but we are relieved that children will still have access to Flores counsel to monitor their treatment,” Welch said.

The ruling maintains the ability for lawyers of child migrants to access information about and meet with them in the facilities.

Flores, named for Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, is a policy cornerstone that grew out of widespread allegations of mistreatment in the 1980s. It forces the U.S. to quickly release children in custody to relatives in the country and sets standards at licensed shelters, including for food, drinking water, adult supervision, emergency medical services, toilets, sinks, temperature control and ventilation.

The judge’s decision came three days before the beginning of the HHS regulations that, according to Secretary Xavier Becerra, will set “clear standards for the care and treatment of unaccompanied (migrant) children.”’

The Justice Department and HHS did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

The new regulations at the health and human services department will create an independent ombudsman’s office, establish minimum standards at temporary overflow shelters and formalize advances in screening protocols for releasing children to families and sponsors and for legal services.

Of the 13,093 beds operated by the department, 7,317 of them — more than half — are in Texas, according to the ruling. The judge rejected the plaintiff’s suggestion to stop housing children in Texas and Florida all together, calling it “not only impractical, but also potentially harmful to unaccompanied migrant children, to no longer operate facilities in these border states.”

Welch said she has heard “horror stories” of abuse and neglect from meeting with children in immigration custody and worries about the lack of infrastructure to investigate those cases in unlicensed facilities under the new rules. And she called on the Biden administration to not abandon children in Texas and Florida.

“Our team will hold them accountable to their promises, and if they fail to meet them, we will see them in court once again,” she said.

The administration did not seek to lift court supervision of Border Patrol holding stations run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which will still need to abide by the Flores agreement.