A federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled that the Obama administration's detention of illegal immigrant children and their mothers violates an 18-year-old court settlement.
In a ruling that upheld a tentative decision she issued in April, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the Department of Homeland Security to free the families from three holding facilities as soon as possible.
In her ruling, handed down late Friday, Gee wrote that the children and their mothers were being held in "widespread deplorable conditions" and that authorities had failed to place the youngsters in "safe and sanitary" facilities, as required by the 1997 settlement.
Gee strongly criticized the government for not complying with what she said are the "unambiguous" terms of the 1997 settlement, and ruled that the settlement applies to both unaccompanied children and those who arrived with their mothers.
The judge has given Homeland Security until August 3 to come up a with a plan for the detainees. She also gave the Justice Department 90 days to show cause why it should not have to abide by her ruling.
A Homeland Security spokeswoman said the department was "disappointed." The Justice Department has not yet responded.
Under the 1997 court settlement, immigrant children who arrive in the U.S. illegally and without a parent must be held in a place that looks like and is operated like a licensed, clean and comfortable child-care center.
Immigrant-rights lawyers sued the government, arguing that two immigrant detention facilities in Texas and one in Pennsylvania were secured like prisons. All three are operated by private companies under contract to the federal government. Together, they have recently held more than 2,000 women and children. Those people were among tens of thousands of people who had come to the United States from Central America, most of them mothers with children. Many claimed they were fleeing gang and domestic violence back home.
The legal action contends that mothers held in the detention facilities are sick and depressed, and that their children also are becoming depressed.
Peter Schey, one of the attorneys who brought the suit, said federal officials "know they’re in violation of the law."
"They are holding children in unsafe facilities, it's that simple,'' said Schey, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, in an email to The Associated Press. "It's intolerable, it's inhumane, and it needs to end, and end sooner rather than later.''
Gee rejected the Justice Department's contention that it had to alter terms of the 1997 settlement to deter the massive wave of illegal immigrant children from Central America who poured across the U.S. border last year.
Some information for this report came from AP.