As the pandemic gathered speed In March, a federal judge called the government’s immigrant detention centers “hotbeds of contagion” and ordered that migrant children be released from them without delay. Some have been. But the Trump administration has dragged its feet in freeing many migrant children detained with their families, offering parents the formal “option” of letting their children go — to be separated from their mothers and fathers.

That Hobson’s choice was presented in mid-May to several hundred asylum-seeking parents at the three migrant family detention centers, in Texas and Pennsylvania, run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many Americans may have assumed that the administration, scalded by its last experiment with separating migrant children from their families, would not again broach that subject. But it did.

On May 13 and 14, parents at those facilities, mainly mothers, were herded into sudden encounters with ICE officials, who presented them with forms to sign. The detainees’ lawyers were neither notified nor aware of what was going on. The forms presented parents with the option of allowing government agents to place their children with relatives or other sponsors elsewhere in the United States, while the parents would stay behind in detention. Very few of the parents assented, though plenty were shaken by the experience; some agreed without realizing the repercussions, according to a subsequent court filing.

Judge Dolly M. Gee, of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, has jurisdiction over detained migrant children under the 1997 Flores settlement, which prohibits the long-term detention of migrant minors. In March, as covid-19 cases were spreading rapidly in migrant detention facilities, she ordered the administration to speed up the release of minors; hundreds were placed with sponsors. However, the Flores agreement grants the judge no jurisdiction over parents detained with their children.

That apparently prompted ICE to undertake its proceedings in the family detention centers, in which agents asked asylum-seeking parents if they were willing to part with their children, some of them babies and toddlers. In fact, ICE has the authority to release families pending their next appearance in immigration court, and has done so routinely in the past. The Trump administration has taken a different tack, raising the bar on asylum as it subjects migrant families to months-long confinements even if children suffer in the process — which they do.

According to advocates and attorneys for the migrant parents, the parents summoned by ICE officials were confused and intimidated. Some thought they risked being deported if they refused to let their children be taken away. In at least one instance, according to a court filing, a mother who signed the form asked an ICE officer if she could change her mind; she was told no.

The administration closed the U.S. southern border to asylum seekers this spring, citing the risk of the pandemic. Most detained migrants had entered the country months earlier, and more than 1,000 covid-19 cases have been reported in detention facilities nationwide, including among detainees and staff members. None have been confirmed in the three family detention centers, perhaps because there has been little testing. Still, hundreds of migrant minors detained with their families remain at risk of contracting the virus. At this point, their continuing confinement seems a gratuitous act of cruelty.

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