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Judge Orders Timely Housing for Migrant Children Waiting at Border

The federal government is required to “expeditiously” house migrant children who cross into the United States unlawfully, rather than allow them to remain in unsafe open-air sites along the border, a Federal District Court judge ruled Wednesday night.

The decision, handed down by Judge Dolly M. Gee of the United States District Court of Central California, sided mostly with the lawyers representing the children in a class-action lawsuit. It established that minors at the sites were in legal custody of the Department of Homeland Security and thus were entitled to certain rights and protections, such as a safe and sanitary environment, even if they had not yet been formally processed.

The ruling comes amid a fierce political and cultural debate over the rights of migrants — including children — who enter the United States without permission. Because of an influx in crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration processing centers in southern San Diego County are strained, and migrants have waited for hours or sometimes days at makeshift camps to be taken into custody.

The outdoor areas where migrants have been waiting lack shelter, food and sanitation, which has given way to an array of public health concerns for the most vulnerable. Unaccompanied children and young families sometimes arrive in poor health, according to aid workers and medical volunteers at the sites, suffering from traumatic injuries or chronic health conditions that require medications that have long since run out.

During the hot desert days, dehydration and heat stroke have become common problems, according to aid groups, and nighttime temperatures, wind and rain are creating conditions ripe for hypothermia. Doctors are particularly concerned about those elements for children, since many have lower body fat than adults and may be malnourished from their journeys.

The government had argued that the children were not yet in U.S. custody so it had no obligation to provide services. The judge cited Border Patrol agents’ control over the minors’ ability to leave the sites — and their power to affect whether the children have access to aid and medical treatment — as the rationale for her ruling.

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