Lawyers for the Justice Department had urged Gee to allow the Trump administration to withdraw from the Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 federal consent decree that sets basic standards for detaining migrant children. The decree led to a 20-day limit for holding children in detention facilities that have not been licensed by the states for the purpose of caring for minors.
President Trump has called Flores a “loophole” that has enabled hundreds of thousands of families, many from impoverished Central American countries, to cross the southern boundary and claim asylum. Those migrants generally are quickly released into the United States because of the 20-day limit on detaining children.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services issued new rules in August that sought to terminate the settlement and lift the 20-day limit by allowing the federal government to license such facilities.
In the ruling Friday, Gee wrote that the regulations “fail to implement and are inconsistent with the relevant and substantive terms of the Flores Settlement Agreement” and therefore cannot take effect, noting that the agreement is a binding contract that was never appealed.
“Defendants cannot simply ignore the dictates of the consent decree merely because they no longer agree with its approach as a matter of policy,” she wrote. “Defendants cannot simply impose their will by promulgating regulations that abrogate the consent decree’s most basic tenets.”
The ruling “perpetuates the loophole that this same judge created, which has been exploited by criminal cartels to smuggle children across the United States Southern Border — often resulting in their physical and sexual abuse,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement Friday night. “The Flores 20-day Loophole violates Congressional removal and detention mandates, creating a new system out of judicial whole cloth. This destructive end-run around the detention and removal system Congress created must end.”
The Justice Department is widely expected to appeal the decision, but a spokesman for the department did not signal the administration’s next steps Friday.
“The Department of Justice is disappointed that the court is continuing to impose the outdated Flores Agreement even after the government has done exactly what the Agreement required: issue a comprehensive rule that will protect vulnerable children, maintain family unity, and ensure due process for those awaiting adjudication of their immigration claims,” a spokesman said. “The Trump Administration will continue to work to restore integrity to our immigration system and ensure the proper functioning of the duly enacted immigration laws.”
Withdrawing from the settlement is part of Trump’s “beautiful puzzle,” an assortment of tough immigration enforcement measures designed to reduce the flow of Central American families and unaccompanied minors streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), chair of the congressional Hispanic Caucus, hailed the ruling Friday.
“I am pleased that our justice system has stopped the Trump Administration plans to indefinitely detain families in prisonlike conditions,” Castro said. “This victory gives us hope and is a reminder to us all — elected officials, immigration lawyers, organizers, and advocates — to keep fighting. Flores is not a loophole — it’s a lifesaving standard that protects the basic rights and dignity of migrant children.”
Acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan, who has pushed for the termination of the Flores pact, said officials did not want to hold families longer than 50 days, but critics said the proposed regulations left open the possibility that minors could be detained for months or years.
More than 800,000 migrants have been taken into federal custody at the border this year, and the majority have been in family units. Advocates say they are fleeing dangerous and unstable regions in Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” the nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.