Following a federal judge’s order that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement release all children who have been held in custody for more than 20 days, Catholic advocacy groups say the situation is “more urgent and complex than it appears.”

On June 26, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee said that the country’s family detention centers “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half measures,” citing coronavirus outbreaks among employees and detainees. Her ruling ordered the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to release the children by July 17.

Questions remain about the practical consequences of the court order, such as whether it will lead to a new iteration of children being separated from their families.

Noting that “similar rulings by the federal judge have already been made during the pandemic and yet the children have not been released,” eleven Catholic advocacy organizations voiced concern that “ICE and collaborating agencies may seek to comply with the judge’s July 17 deadline by recreating a family separation policy similar to those deployed in the past.”

Their July 1 statement went on to call for the release of all children and associated family members at the centers named in the ruling, demanded that “the administration stop using children as bargaining chips,” and called for “an end to the fundamental injustice of deporting and detaining children and families seeking to exercise their right to seek asylum and protection in the United States.”

Signing onto the statement were the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Franciscan Action Network, the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology, theLeadership Conference of Women Religious, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Pax Christi USA, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and the Society of the Sacred Heart, United States and Canada Province.

Wednesday’s statement was not the first time these groups called attention to the conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border. In July 2019, they launched their Catholic Campaign to End Immigrant Child Detention with a public act of prayer and nonviolent civil disobedience at the U.S. Capitol, which resulted in the arrest of seventy participants.

Some individual leaders of these groups have explained in further detail their reasons for issuing Wednesday’s statement.

Susan Gunn, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, said in a statement, “We see what the U.S. government is posed to do to families hidden away in immigration detention centers, where the coronavirus is so prevalent that three members of Congress couldn’t be protected from exposure during a brief visit at a detention center last week.”

“For safety, we need to get children out of detention immediately, but we will not let the government use the coronavirus as cover for separated families,” she added. “We call on our government to release the children along with their parents and to use the affordable, reliable, community-based alternatives to detention that we know are readily available.”

Father Michael K. Barth, the chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, cited their ministries alongside “many people on the move, including asylum seekers” and called for the release of both children and parents, saying, “We also insist that the parents not be asked to choose between the release of their children from a physically and emotionally harmful setting and their ability to be united with their children.”

Stephen Schneck, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, called the separation of immigrant children from their families “an affront to the heavens.” His statement called for the administration to release the children and their families, referring to family separation as “cruel, immoral, and against our beliefs as Franciscan Christians.”

Citing their missionaries’ service on both sides of the border, Scott Wright, director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, said that the Columbans “strongly denounce the cruel and unjust treatment of families who are fleeing from hunger and violence” and added, “To welcome migrants and refugees is intrinsic to who we are as Catholics and people of faith.”

While it remains to be seen how the administration will respond to the judge’s order, the governor of Pennsylvania, where one of the country’s three family detention centers resides, has issued a statement in support of the ruling.

Governor Tom Wolf’s administration pledged to work with federal and county officials to “ensure the safe release of people in custody and provide any assistance necessary” and expressed “hope that this order marks the beginning of the end of family detention in the United States.”