All unaccompanied minors held in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers in the Western region may be represented as a group after a ruling Monday by a Los Angeles federal court judge.
U.S. District Judge Robert Kelleher certified an 11-month-old lawsuit as a class-action suit but limited its scope to the Western region, which includes California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam.
The lawsuit, filed in July by the National Youth Law Center and the National Center for Immigrants' Rights Inc., seeks, among other things, to force the INS to provide minors with educational benefits, extend visitation rights and bar minors from being housed with adults.
Little Change Expected
Government attorneys downplayed the significance of Kelleher's ruling.
"What the court did today does not require the INS to change any practices," said Ian Fan, an assistant U.S. attorney who represents the INS. "Keeping juveniles without teaching them is not considered punishment."
Fan said most children are detained fewer than 14 days. He said no trial date has been set for the case.
The suit was originally filed on behalf of four children who challenged the INS policy of releasing minors only to their parents or legal guardians. Attorneys for the children claimed that the INS was using the children as "bait" to catch and deport their parents.
Last July, Kelleher ordered the INS to release two teen-age Salvadoran girls who were detained for about two months while facing deportation. The judge permitted one girl to go home with her aunt and uncle and gave custody of the other to a family friend.
"The federal government identified 13 facilities (nationwide) being used to hold young people," said James Morales, an attorney for the National Youth Law Center. "We've found illegal conditions at all the facilities."
Fan said the number of children in INS detention has decreased from the 147 held in April, 1985. On Monday, there were 74 minors held in the region's detention centers, an INS spokesman said.