A federal judge on Friday night ordered that mothers and children held in U.S. immigration centers be released from detention, rebuking Homeland Security officials for locking up the families in violation of a long-standing court settlement.
U.S. officials began detaining mothers and children in the centers after a surge of undocumented immigrants arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, fleeing violence in Central America. The families are held at the facilities while their claims for asylum are processed.
But in a 25-page ruling blasting some of the "deplorable conditions" in which the families were held, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in the Central District of California ordered officials comply with a 1997 settlement that governs the detention of migrant children.
“It is astonishing that Defendants have enacted a policy requiring such expensive infrastructure without more evidence to show that it would be compliant with an Agreement that has been in effect for nearly 20 years," Judge Gee wrote.
"It is even more shocking that after nearly two decades Defendants have not implemented appropriate regulations to deal with this complicated area of immigration law."
Around 1,700 parents and children are being held by the Obama administration in two immigration detention facilities in Texas and one in Pennsylvania.
The court received evidence from some of those being detained in the prison-like, "secure" facilities who complained of overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, poor hygiene, subpar medical treatment, and not being allowed visits from family members.
Immigrant groups say the conditions are so poor that some detainees have begun hunger strikes or attempted suicide.
Homeland Security officials have until August 3 to come up with a plan for releasing the mothers and children.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told the Los Angeles Times that officials were reviewing the ruling to "determine appropriate next steps."
Earlier this month, ICE officials told BuzzFeed News they had begun releasing from detention undocumented immigrant families who have valid asylum claims.