A three-judge panel for the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco tossed out the U.S. government's challenge to a lower court's findings that authorities had failed to provide safe and sanitary conditions for the children in line with a 1997 settlement agreement.
The government argued that authorities weren't required to provide specific accommodations, such as soap, under the settlement's requirement that facilities be "safe and sanitary" and asked the panel to weigh in. The appellate judges disagreed.
The ruling followed a June hearing where a U.S. government lawyer said the agreement was vague and might not require that a toothbrush and soap be provided to children during brief stays in custody. Requiring these items, the government said, would be a change in the agreement.
Leecia Welch, senior director of legal advocacy and child welfare at the National Center for Youth Law, said the panel's ruling wasn't surprising. "It should shock the conscience of all Americans to know that our government argued children do not need these bare essentials," she said.
A message seeking comment was sent to the Department of Justice.
U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles ruled in 2017 that authorities had breached the agreement — widely known as the Flores settlement — after young immigrants caught on the border said they had to sleep in cold, overcrowded cells and were given inadequate food and dirty water.
Since then, problems in the facilities have persisted. Gee has appointed an independent monitor to evaluate conditions.
The issues date back years. They have drawn increased attention amid a rise in the number of children and families, mostly from Central America, arriving on the southwest border.
The Flores settlement between advocates for young immigrants and the U.S. government says children should be held in facilities that meet certain standards and released as soon as is reasonably possible, which has been considered to be about 20 days.