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Detained Guatemalan girl, 7, wins court appeal — but she and father still can't leave together

Jeff Gammage, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- A 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who has spent a record 233 days at the Berks County immigrant detention center has won an important legal appeal -- but not one allowing her and her father to leave the facility together.

The decision late Thursday by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a different aspect of the family's case. The court ruled that Maddie, as she's identified, and her father, identified in court as Mr. H, have the right to challenge the government's authority to send them to Mexico while awaiting the outcome of their immigration proceedings. And, importantly, so do others in similar situations, the court ruled.

"This case raises the age-old question, 'If not now, when?'" the court wrote. "For aliens who are challenging their removal from the United States, the answer is usually 'later.' But not always. And not here."

The decision came after a federal judge in Philadelphia dismissed the family's arguments. The appeals court reversed that and returned the case to the district court.

The court ruling was precedential, which means it will be binding or persuasive for courts deciding subsequent cases with similar facts.

"Maddie's case has made law that will help every immigrant child in detention in the United States," said Amy Maldonado, a Michigan attorney who represents the family. "This was a huge win."


Federal attorneys with a role in the case could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

The Trump administration has sent thousands of adult and child asylum-seekers to Mexico under its "Migrant Protection Protocols," which advocates say typically leaves people homeless and stranded in dangerous cities.

The decision did not address the issue of releasing Maddie and her father to join the child's mother, who lives in New Jersey but has not been targeted for deportation. Last month, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that father and child "must show more than noble goals and an empathetic case" to win their joint release.

The government has offered to immediately release Maddie to her mother. But not freeing her father, the family's lawyers argued, made the overture merely a different form of family separation, one they said would inflict more harm on a suffering child.


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