SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A district court judge in Los Angeles is at the center of the Trump administration's efforts to crack down on families crossing the border illegally. Dolly Gee oversees a 1997 consent decree that says immigrant children can only be held in detention for 20 days - no more. The Trump administration wants that time limit extended so immigrant parents and children can be detained together until their immigration proceedings are complete. But as member station KQED's Julie Small reports, they still have to make their case before Judge Gee.
JULIE SMALL, BYLINE: In overseeing that 1997 consent decree known as the Flores settlement agreement, Judge Gee has already twice rejected government efforts to lock children and parents up indefinitely.
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DOLLY GEE: My name is Dolly Gee, and I am a United States district judge for the Central District of California.
SMALL: In a recent video interview for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Judge Gee explains how her experience as a child of a Chinese immigrant garment worker drew her to the law.
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GEE: I saw many of the abuses that take place in the workplace, and I decided at a fairly early age that I wanted to do some type of work that would help to address some of the inequities that I saw as a child.
SMALL: During law school at UCLA, Gee clinched one of 10 slots for a competitive summer externship at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. Attorney Bill Tamayo was one of Gee's mentors there. He says, from the beginning, Gee stood out.
BILL TAMAYO: She could argue both sides of memos and positions. And, you know, there's somebody you can just sense from their work that they're very committed to justice causes and civil rights causes.
SMALL: Just a couple years out of law school, Gee joined a Los Angeles firm, and that would become her home for the next 10 years. There, she advocated for workers in cases covering labor law, harassment and discrimination. She was a partner and loved litigating and might have stayed an attorney until...
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GEE: The only reason why I became a federal judge actually is because friends of mine prodded me into applying.
SMALL: When she was nominated by President Obama and confirmed in 2009, Gee became the first Asian-American woman to serve on the federal court. In 2015, she began presiding over the decades-old Flores settlement. Flores dictates the conditions under which immigrant children can be detained and sets a time limit of 20 days. The Obama administration first asked for an extension to that 20 day deadline back in 2015. Not allowed, said Judge Gee. Not surprising says attorney Dale Minami who has known the judge for decades. He says Gee, who stands at 4'11," shouldn't be underestimated.
DALE MINAMI: She looks, you know, very harmless, but she has an incredible amount of moral authority and the ability to project authority on the bench. In other words, you don't mess with her.
SMALL: The Trump administration has also challenged the Flores settlement, calling it one of the primary pull factors encouraging immigrant families to cross the border. In July, they asked Gee to extend detention times for children, and she strongly rejected their arguments, calling them tortured and cynical. Now, the government is proposing to circumvent Flores completely by establishing new regulations they say will ensure safe conditions for all migrant children and their parents while extending detention times indefinitely. Plaintiffs in the Flores case say they will ask Judge Gee to reject the government's attempt to withdraw from the agreement. For NPR News, I'm Julie Small in San Francisco.
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