By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. government is violating a 1997 settlement by detaining unauthorized immigrant children, and an order may be forthcoming to require the release of the minors and parents detained with them, a judge in California has ruled.
The ruling on Friday by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee follows an influx across the U.S.-Mexico border of immigrants from Central America.
The flood of immigrants has slowed from peaks last year, but is still high, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said earlier this summer.
The latest ruling on detentions represents a defeat for U.S. immigration authorities, who in court filings argued releasing undocumented immigrant children with their parents encourages families in Central America to undertake the dangerous journey north.
Gee in her ruling gave U.S. officials 90 days to present arguments for why she should not issue a ruling that would require the release of immigrant children and a parent, usually a mother, detained with the minor.
Her 25-page ruling would provide for keeping a parent in custody if the person is a "significant flight risk," and in some cases the decision envisions releasing a child to another family member in the United States.
Detainees have testified to overcrowding in U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding cells where they were detained before being turned over to another agency, Gee wrote.
"Children and their mothers were held for one to three days in rooms with 100 or more unrelated adults and children, which forced children to sleep standing up or not at all," wrote Gee, who is based in Los Angeles.
Her ruling is based on a 1997 class-action settlement in an immigration lawsuit brought years before against federal officials. The agreement required the federal government to minimize detention of immigrant children.
The federal government has taken steps to release unacompanied immigrant children, often to a parent or relative living in the United States. Last year, more than 68,000 children traveling without a parent entered the country.
But the federal government has held children who came with a parent in special facilities.
U.S. officials are holding 1,700 parents and children at three centers, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"We are disappointed with the court's decision and are reviewing it in consultation with the Department of Justice," the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
Department officials plan to respond to the judge's order by Aug. 3, the statement said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis)