A federal judge said Friday she will appoint an independent monitor to keep tabs on the conditions migrant children are kept in after they are detained along parts of the southern border.
"There continue to be persistent problems," US District Judge Dolly Gee said in a status hearing at a federal courthouse in Los Angeles, adding, "There seems to be disconnect between what both sides see at these facilities."
The judge said she wants an independent monitor to report the facts to her directly, "to cut through disputes over what is happening on the ground."
The move comes a day after the deadline for the government to reunite families separated at the border, and amid public outcry over those separations and the alleged ill treatment of some children in government-run detention facilities.
Friday's hearing concerned a separate, ongoing lawsuit regarding Flores v. Reno, a 1997 settlement agreement that set standards for the care of immigrant children in government custody. Immigrant rights groups periodically file motions to ensure the government abides by the ruling, and the Department of Justice recently filed for relief from some provisions of the ruling during this year's child separation crisis.
The Trump administration has sought to modify a 2015 settlement agreement in the case, thus far unsuccessfully.
Gee gave lawyers from the Department of Justice and plaintiffs from immigrant rights groups until August 10 to confer and come up with a name of a qualified candidate for the monitor job. Failing that, she said, they should each submit two candidate names and then she will decide.
The independent monitor's role will be limited by the judge: confined to Customs and Border Protection detention facilities along the border in the Rio Grande valley in Texas. The monitor will also only assess accusations of ill treatment made to Judge Gee in a June 2017 motion.
"One of the persistent problems that we see is the inhumane treatment of children in border patrol facilities where they might be detained for anywhere from three to six days," Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, told reporters after the hearing. "This includes inadequate food. It includes enforced dehydration, it includes sleep deprivation because children do not have access to sleeping mats."
Friday in court, a DOJ attorney, Sarah Fabian, asked the judge to hold off on appointing the independent monitor until the government can investigate, and rebut, recent accusations of mistreatment lodged by immigrants and their attorneys. Gee said the government is free to dispute those accounts at any time, but said that process will not delay the appointment of the monitor.
Gee said there are issues of immediate concern that must be addressed as soon as possible. She also told Fabian that the monitor would be "in your benefit as well."
Fabian also suggested the judge might need to find new allegations of mistreatment to justify appointing the independent monitor. "I have authority," the judge replied.
Earlier Friday, at an event in Washington, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said those detention facilities "weren't built to handle families and children."
Questioned about a five-year trend of rising numbers of children and families apprehended at the border, and the likelihood that it will continue, McAleenan added, "If this is a phenomenon that's going to continue in this manner ... we have to have a better arrival point for children and families."
Schey said he will likely file a motion to expand the independent monitor's role to cover detention centers along the entire Southern border.
"These are problems that appear to be pervasive along the border at this time," he said.
Fabian also offered to facilitate a visit by Judge Gee to the Rio Grande valley. The judge did not rule that out.