Trump seeks to ease limits on child immigrant detentions

WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - The Trump administration asked a federal court on Thursday to ease curbs on the detention of immigrant children who enter the country illegally with their parents, a key part of President Donald Trump's executive order aimed at ending the separation of immigrant families.

In a filing in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, the Justice Department asked a judge to modify a 1997 settlement that has been interpreted as setting a 20-day limit on detaining children who entered the country illegally, regardless of whether they entered with a parent.

It also sought an exemption from state licensing requirements for federal facilities that house the children.

The Justice Department said the recent surge in the number of illegal border crossings by families had created a "destabilizing migratory crisis" that puts those families at risk and threatens public safety.

"Under current law and legal rulings," the Justice Department said, "it is not possible for the U.S. government to detain families together during the pendency of their immigration proceedings. It cannot be done."

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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent takes a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks for groups of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A Honduran mother holds her two-year-old as U.S. Border Patrol as agents review their papers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran stands with her mother after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a Border Patrol processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Reached in 1997, the so-called Flores settlement called for migrant children unaccompanied by a parent to be moved out of adult detention facilities "without unnecessary delay."

Children were to be placed in the custody of a relative or legal guardian, or moved to minimally restrictive centers licensed by state child welfare authorities.

Litigation during the Obama administration clarified that the settlement also covered children traveling with a family member.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who oversees the settlement, has said the government can hold migrant children for as long as 20 days if they are detained with their parents.

In 2014, during a surge of migrants from Central America, the Obama administration argued that the settlement should be modified to provide more flexibility to detain children with their families.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected changes in 2016, saying the settlement's protections applied regardless of whether children entered the country with a parent or on their own.

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Protests against family separations at US border
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Protests against family separations at US border
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 14: Demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to protest the Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents when they arrive at the U.S. border without authorization on June 14, 2018. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 14: Demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to protest the Trump administration policy of separating children from their parents when they arrive at the U.S. border without authorization on June 14, 2018. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: Young children alongside adults protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People shine cell phones and call 'you are not alone' to immigrant detainees inside the Metropolitan Detention Center during a protest of the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. The detainees responded by shines lights back and banging on their cells. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People shine cell phones and call 'you are not alone' to immigrant detainees inside the Metropolitan Detention Center during a protest of the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. The detainees responded by shines lights back and banging on their cells. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People call 'you are not alone' to immigrant detainees inside the Metropolitan Detention Center during a protest of the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. The detainees responded by shines lights back and banging on their cells. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 14: People protest the Trump administration policy of removing children from parents arrested for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators marched through the city and culminated the march at a detention center where ICE (U.S.Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees are held. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested 162 undocumented immigrants during a three-day operation in Los Angeles and surrounding areas. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S. June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Sharon Chajon whose husband is a detained immigrant cries while people participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
New Jersey and New York Congressmen hold a news conference during a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S. June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) speaks during a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Maria Inga whose husband is a detained immigrant cries while people participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S. June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) speaks during a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their families when they enter the United States as undocumented immigrants, in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
People participate in a protest against recent U.S. immigration policy that separates children from their families when entering the United States as undocumented immigrants in front of a Homeland Security facility in Elizabeth, NJ, U.S., June 17, 2018. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
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Although a change in circumstances could be grounds for a judge to alter the Flores settlement, several legal experts said they were skeptical the administration's argument based on growth in illegal border crossings met that standard.

“The government will probably lose this motion,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor at Cornell University. “I don’t think this is the type of change of circumstance Judge Gee will find sufficient to warrant modification of the settlement agreement."

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Dan Burns; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Peter Cooney)

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