MERCEDES, RGV – The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has welcomed a federal judge’s ruling that immigrant women and children should be released from the “substandard” and “deplorable” family detention centers they are housed in.

Two of the facilities are in Texas, one in Dilley and the other Karnes City. Both are run by private companies under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A third, in Berks County, Pa., is run by the county. About 1,700 parents and children, many from Central America, are currently housed at the three centers.

U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez
U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the family detention centers are in violation of the 1997 Flores vs. Meese settlement requiring immigrant children to be housed in the least restrictive environment. She said the detention centers are substandard.

“The federal ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee confirms what we’ve known for a long time now: family detention centers should be closed,” said U.S. Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, chair of the CHC. “It is unconscionable that we are imprisoning mothers and children who pose no risk to our national security.  House Democrats and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have been calling for the closure of these centers and we applaud Judge Dolly Gee’s ruling.  We hope this ruling will move us closer to finally stopping this inhumane treatment of immigrant families.”

Sánchez’s reaction follows similar comments made by U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, the immediate past chair of CHC.

“I applaud the federal ruling confirming that the conditions for immigrant children and their mothers in detention centers in Dilley and Karnes County, Texas are inhumane,” Hinojosa said. “My colleagues and I in Congress have called upon the Department of Homeland Security to adhere to laws already in place requiring safe and non-threatening conditions in the detention centers. We expect this ruling to bring about an end to reports of maltreatment and will therefore closely monitor DHS’ compliance to ensure the families are treated with dignity and respect in accordance with the values and laws of the United States of America.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said her agency was disappointed in Judge Gee’s ruling. “We are disappointed with the court’s decision and are reviewing it in consultation with the Department of Justice,” said Marsha L. Catron, in a prepared statement.

The centers were opened in response to the wave of refugees, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, who flooded the Rio Grande Valley last summer. According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 50,000 unaccompanied children were caught or surrendered to border agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector in fiscal year 2014. Across the southwest border as a whole the figure was about 68,600. For “family units” the apprehension number was 52,300 in the Valley and 68,400 across the southwest border.

Judge Gee blasted federal officials in her 25-page ruling. She found “widespread and deplorable conditions in the holding cells of Border Patrol stations” and said the detention centers “failed to meet even the minimal standard” of “safe and sanitary” conditions at temporary holding cells.

“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,” Gee wrote.

Gee has given the federal government until Aug. 3 to explain why an order she plans to issue should not be implemented within 90 days.

Last November, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson held a news conference outside the Border Patrol offices in McAllen, Texas, to announce that recently arrived immigrants without documentation would be detained and sent home. Expansion of family detention centers followed soon afterwards.

The Flores vs. Meese legal settlement came in 1997. It stipulated the type of treatment minors receive in detention centers. The law states that children are entitled to a range of social, legal, and health services unavailable to adults in immigration custody. DHS argued before Judge Gee that as the parents were with them the children detained were getting all the care they needed. Gee did not accept this argument.

Editor’s Note: In the main image accompanying this story, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson is pictured holding a news conference outside the Dilley familey detention center in December, 2014. (Photo: STR/Jennifer Whitney)