A judge on Monday ordered the U.S. government not to deport a Honduran woman, whose lawyers worry about her being separated from her 15-year-old daughter who has been detained with her for six months.
U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss issued the temporary restraining order at the request of the woman's lawyers, who feared U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement might deport her before they could appeal after Christmas and leave the teenager alone in government custody.
The lawyers say the woman and her daughter came to the U.S. two years ago after gang members in Honduras held them at gunpoint and demanded they pay protection money.
The mother and daughter are detained together at the family detention center in the South Texas city of Dilley. While the daughter has a case for asylum pending, an immigration judge on Friday denied the mother's request to reopen her immigration case.
Shalyn Fluharty, who is managing attorney of the Dilley Pro Bono Project and representing the mother and daughter, said that the teen has tried to take her own life at least once in detention and that she needs her mother.
"Her psychological well-being is in a critical state," Fluharty said.
The mother and daughter were initially allowed out of detention while their immigration cases proceeded, but ICE detained them both in June. The daughter had her 15th birthday in detention last week.
The Dilley facility, which has a capacity of 2,400, is used by ICE to hold mothers and daughters together. Fluharty said she had never heard of anyone being detained at Dilley for six months. An agreement known as the Flores settlement bars the prolonged detention of immigrant children.
Fluharty said the teen and her mother fear that she would be sexually assaulted or killed if sent back to Honduras.
But if the mother was deported and the daughter kept in the U.S., the teen would likely be placed in a government facility for unaccompanied minors. That's what occurred with hundreds of children earlier this year after their parents were deported under a zero-tolerance immigration policy that led to large-scale family separations.
More than 14,000 minors were in government custody last week, many in large, crowded facilities that pediatricians and mental health experts say are unsuitable for children.
"That choice is fundamentally unfair and should never be posed to a child," Fluharty said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who has visited several facilities in Texas to call attention to immigration detention, met with the detained Honduran mother during a visit to Dilley and has called attention to her and her daughter's case.
Merkley questioned whether the U.S. government was using the threat of deporting the mother to force the teen to give up her own asylum case.
"This is a form of psychological pressure," Merkley said Monday. "We need to have the best interest of the child in mind, and that means not separating her from the mother and not keeping her in prison."
Fluharty said she plans to appeal the mother's case Wednesday after the government holiday for Christmas. It's unclear whether immigration courts will be open due to the partial government shutdown that began Saturday.
A spokeswoman for ICE said the agency could not comment on the case due to the shutdown. The U.S. Department of Justice did not return messages seeking comment Monday.