A federal appeals court dismissed the Trump administration’s argument that its obligation to detain children in safe and sanitary conditions doesn’t necessarily entail providing them with soap, towels, showers, dry clothing or toothbrushes.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Thursday threw out the Trump administration’s challenge to a judge’s order two years ago that minors held at border patrol stations in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas should be provided with personal hygiene items as well as with proper sleeping conditions, reasonably comfortable temperatures, and adequate food and drinking water. The government was attempting to rewrite a 1997 agreement regarding the treatment of children in immigration detention.
“Assuring that children eat enough edible food, drink clean water, are housed in hygienic facilities with sanitary bathrooms, have soap and toothpaste, and are not sleep-deprived are without doubt essential to the children’s safety,” the appeals panel said in its ruling. “The district court properly construed the agreement as requiring such conditions rather than allowing the government to decide whether to provide them.”
The long-running litigation over enforcement of the so-called Flores agreement from 22 years ago comes as new allegations have emerged in recent months about squalid conditions at U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities in Texas and Florida where thousands of youngsters are housed.
Human rights activists recently asked the judge in Los Angeles who oversees enforcement of the Flores accord for an emergency order to inspect the Texas facilities and to allow independent health care specialists to examine the children held there.
Thursday’s decision follows a hearing in June at which Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian tried to persuade an at times incredulous panel that the district judge had overstepped her authority by enumerating specific sanitary requirements for detained children that weren’t specified in the 1997 agreement between the government and immigrant rights lawyers.
“It wasn’t perfumed soap, it was soap,” Circuit Judge William Fletcher said in response to Fabian’s argument that the lower-court judge had created new requirements for housing minors. “It wasn’t high-class milled soap.”
The court’s video recording of the argument went viral, garnering millions of views on YouTube and prompting threats against Fabian.
At issue in this specific appeal are the conditions under which children are housed, sometimes for weeks, in holding cells at border patrol stations in Texas after they are apprehended. Most of the children are eventually moved from the stations to the Ursula Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, called La Perrera, or doghouse, by the detainees.
Although U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who oversees the Flores litigation, in her 2017 order didn’t find that conditions at the Ursula detention center violated the “safe and sanitary” housing requirements, recent allegations have called conditions at the facility comparable to that of torture facilities, with cold temperatures, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water or food.
President Donald Trump said July 7 that problems at U.S. border facilities have been exaggerated by the news media, and he demanded that Democrats in Congress change asylum laws to make it more difficult for migrants to claim refuge in the U.S.
The case is Flores v. Sessions, 17-56297, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (San Francisco).
(Updates with appeals court’s conclusion in third paragraph.)
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