National Center for Youth Law

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Temporary Restraining Order Seeks Expedited Release of Children in Immigration Custody Due to Risks Associated With COVID-19 Pandemic

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 25, 2020

Contact: Patty Guinto, 626.512.4974, pguinto@youthlaw.org

Washington, D.C. – The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, the UC Davis Law School Immigration Clinic, and Cooley LLP today applied for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in Lucas R. v. Azar, seeking emergency relief on behalf of children and youth in the legal custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR detains hundreds of children in large congregate facilities where they have little or no ability to practice social distancing or take other measures to avoid contracting the COVID-19 virus.

The TRO seeks the expedited release of these children to waiting family members. Furthermore, requested relief includes a requirement that children with no one to care for them be transferred immediately to a non-congregate care setting that complies with COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in order to minimize the risk of exposure, or be offered the opportunity to file an administrative appeal to challenge their continued placement in congregate care under these circumstances.

Read the Memorandum of Points and Authorities

Read the Proposed Temporary Restraining Order and Order to Show Cause

As the number of documented cases of COVID-19 rises, the CDC, state health authorities, and epidemiologists, all urge safety precautions that are difficult, if not impossible, to observe in facilities housing more than ten individuals at a time, including social distancing. But many children in ORR custody live, eat and sleep in close proximity.

In a declaration submitted by Julie DeAun Graves, MD, a family medicine and public health physician states, “Under current pandemic conditions, such congregate settings are inherently unsafe and unsanitary, and they become increasingly dangerous in proportion to the number of children whom ORR places in such facilities.”

Dr. Graves’ cites ORR’s Interim Guidance on COIVID-19 as inadequate and contrary to current CDC guidelines as well as public health practice being adopted during the current pandemic. “We are currently in an emergency situation,” she says. “Even if ORR issues more stringent guidance in the upcoming days or weeks, it will likely be too late, especially for facilities located in areas of high community transmission, such as New York and California.” It has now been confirmed that children have been exposed to the virus at two different ORR facilities in New York.

Read Dr. Julie DeAun Graves Declaration

“The urgency here cannot be overstated,” states Leecia Welch, Senior Director, Legal Advocacy and Child Welfare at at NCYL. “Without immediate steps to reduce the population of youth in congregate care and strict adherence to social distancing, many ORR facilities could become sites of massive infection. More than 1,000 children may be exposed to COVID-19, placing them, program staff, and the general public at high risk of infection or death.”

“During this rapidly expanding and unprecedented public health crisis, the health and safety of every child in ORR custody must be paramount,” observes Holly Cooper, Co-Director of the Immigration Clinic at the UC Davis School of Law. “ORR must avoid the risk of grave harm created by exposure to COVID-19 in facilities where recommended safety precautions are not or cannot be meaningfully implemented.”

Carlos Holguin, General Counsel for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, adds, “ORR must adjust its policies and practices with respect to release to account for this new reality. Recent data confirm that even very young children are vulnerable to COVID-19. The current system, which tolerates the lengthy detention of children in congregate settings, increases their risk of physical and emotional harm, as well as the likelihood of human rights and civil rights violations.”

“The COVID-19 risks to children in ORR congregate facilities are obvious, imminent and severe,” said Summer Wynn, Partner, Cooley LLP. “ORR has a constitutional obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of children under its care. Our application asks the Court to order ORR to release nearly 1,200 children to ready and previously identified custodians (primarily family and friends), or to at least transfer them to non-congregate settings where there is a better chance for maintaining social distancing and other health and safety measures. These children deserve a fighting-chance to protect their health while sheltered with loved ones.”

About Lucas R. v. Azar

The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law, the UC Davis Law School Immigration Clinic, and Cooley LLP represent Plaintiffs in Lucas R. v. Azar, a federal class action that challenges the federal government’s policies and practices related to the detention, placement and release of unaccompanied migrant youth in federal custody in violation of the Constitution and federal law.  Plaintiffs allege, among other things, that the Office of Refugee Resettlement fails to identify, accommodate and treat youth with underlying mental health, behavioral or cognitive or developmental delays; places youth in restrictive settings without due process; administers psychotropic medications without informed consent; and subjects youth to excessive detention in ORR custody without due process.