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Judge: Immigrant kids should be freed from family detention

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that immigrant children arriving on the U.S. border with their mothers should not be detained in secure detention facilities. But experts say it isn’t entirely clear when they might get out.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee has raised a series of questions about what will happen to hundreds of Central American children and mothers kept in family detention facilities in Texas and Pennsylvania that were created after a surge in the number of immigrants reaching the border last year.

WHAT IS FAMILY DETENTION?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has poured millions of dollars into two privately-operated detention centers for women and children in Karnes City and Dilley, both located south of San Antonio, Texas. Those centers recently held more than 2,000 people combined. A third, smaller facility is in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

The government said the centers would help deter others from coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. About 38,000 children came to the U.S.-Mexico border with a relative during the 2014 fiscal year.

WHAT DOES THE RULING SAY?

The ruling says the government has failed to honor a 1997 settlement agreement that governs how and when immigrant children can be detained. It also says the government should release immigrant children from secure family detention facilities and preferably to a parent, even if the parent is also in detention.

In cases where children are held, the judge said the government should ensure the conditions are safe and sanitary and include access to food and water, toilets and sinks and medical and other services.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO DETAINED CHILDREN AND MOTHERS?

It isn’t entirely clear what will happen to the children and mothers who are currently detained.

Under the ruling, immigration experts said they believe most of the children would qualify to be released after a brief stint in custody, many of them along with their mothers.

Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, said few of the women and children arriving from Central America are a security threat and many have family in the United States. He said he believes the government will use alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets or reporting requirements, to ensure the families attend immigration court hearings.

In recent weeks, government officials announced plans to release more families sooner. On Monday, lawyers at a Texas facility said women were being coerced into accepting ankle-monitoring bracelets even though they had already been granted bond.

WILL THE RULING FUEL MORE IMMIGRATION?

Immigration experts said they don’t think the ruling will drive more immigrants to come to the border.

While government lawyers argued that family detention helped deter immigration, the judge said officials didn’t provide enough evidence to back up those claims.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor at Cornell University Law School, said officials could still keep children in custody, but they would have to invest significant money to improve detention conditions to do so. He also said he didn’t think the ruling would factor into families’ decisions to come here.

“They’re getting shot at. They just want to get out of the country and go to some place that will be safer,” Yale-Loehr said. “I don’t think there will be a significant rise or decrease (in immigration) from Judge Gee’s order.”

WHEN WILL THERE BE A FINAL ANSWER ON THE FATE OF THESE FACILITIES?

The government has until Aug. 3 to tell the court why officials can’t comply with the ruling within 90 days, and plaintiffs’ lawyers have a week after that to respond.

The government can also decide to appeal the ruling. To prevent it from taking effect, officials would need to seek a stay.

Government lawyers are still reviewing the decision, said Nicole Navas, a Department of Justice spokeswoman.

Peter Schey, who represents the plaintiffs, said he believes 95 percent of children and their mothers who are detained will qualify for release, but he doesn’t expect anyone to get out for at least a few more weeks.

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