The Trump administration said Thursday that it plans to withdraw from a court settlement that protects migrant children from being kept in detention centers under inhumane conditions and for more than 20 days.
If the government is successful, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be able to run more family detention centers without obtaining state licenses, a requirement of the settlement, and more children will be kept in prison-like facilities for the duration of their immigration proceedings, which can last up to a year.
In June, the government said it was looking for space to house 12,000 more immigrants in family detention, and has now outlined new regulations that it claims preserve the “relevant and substantive terms” of the agreement. But experts say that ditching the 1997 Flores settlement, the result of a lawsuit surrounding the maltreatment of migrant children, will cause serious psychological and physical trauma for detained children.
The government is saying, ”‘We don’t really want to treat children humanely,’” said Bridget Cambria, an immigration lawyer who has represented detained families. “‘We want to subject them to the harshest rules we can.’”
The Flores settlement specifies that government-run facilities holding immigrant children must have the least restrictive conditions possible, including minimum standards when it comes to hygiene, medical care and recreation.
And, although the government claims the court order contains “legal loopholes” that prevent it from promptly removing illegal immigrants, immigration experts say it protects the most vulnerable children from the traumatic effects of detention.
For months, public outrage was focused on how the government recently separated roughly 2,500 immigrant children from their parents under its zero tolerance policy. But advocates say that officials are now using that government-manufactured crisis to justify the equally horrific practice of family detention.
They’re saying, ”‘We are not going to separate families anymore. We’re going to be more humane and keep them together, but in detention,’” said Cambria. “It’s not an alternative. It’s just another way of torturing children.’”
Cambria said that, though separating children from their parents is traumatic, detaining families together can also have devastating effects on children.
There are only three family detention centers in the U.S., and states won’t issue licenses to build more of these facilities because they violate child welfare laws, according to Cambria. “Their lives become a prison schedule,” she said of kids locked up in family detention centers. “They don’t act like children anymore. They act like prisoners.... They check in and are given a number and a badge.”
Cambria said she has spoken with detained children who had tried to choke themselves with the lanyards for their identification cards, or who said they dreamt about jumping out of windows just to escape the conditions.
Julie Linton, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a pediatrician, said children in family detention centers show obvious signs of trauma. They often refuse to eat or sleep, and can either be withdrawn or suffer from separation anxiety. They often struggle with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, have trouble focusing in school and might develop high blood pressure or heart disease later in life.
Linton said the fact that children are being detained with their parents doesn’t lessen the trauma, because their mothers and fathers are not able to protect them.
“You’ve interrupted the sanctity of the parent-child relationship,” she said. “You’ve created an artificial environment where those detaining the parent are in charge.”
Since guards make all the decisions ― such as when a child goes to bed, what they eat and when they can see a doctor ― Cambria said kids often lash out at their parents, whom they no longer see as authority figures. Often they blame their mothers and fathers for the detention.
“The administration is acting as though there is some current requirement in law that they separate families or detain them, and that those are the only choices.”
A parent’s lack of agency in family detention centers can also jeopardize a child’s health. A toddler recently died of a respiratory infection after being released from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and her mother filed a claim alleging negligent medical care within the facility.
Experts say there’s a good alternative to family detention: Let immigrants with valid asylum claims stay with family members in the U.S., or in living situations of their choosing, while they go through immigration proceedings. Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the government should assign immigrants case managers who help them through the legal process, a solution that is both more humane and cost-effective than detention.
“The administration is acting as though there is some current requirement in law that they separate families or detain them and that those are the only choices,” Brané said. “[It’s] disingenuous and misleading to the public.”
Experts say the administration uses detention to punish immigrants and deter them from coming to the U.S. According to Cambria, it’s more difficult for detained children to get legal status, since they can’t easily access lawyers and family members to help them prepare an asylum case. She said that the government’s desire to withdraw from the Flores settlement proves it’s more interested in getting rid of immigrant children than providing them due process.
“It’s just really inhumane and kind of outrageous,” she said. “[To] let them enact their own rules that are contrary to what Flores says is reprehensible. And I think people are going to be outraged.”
Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to clarify that the government announced it wanted to house 12,000 more immigrants in family detention in June.