The Trump administration on Wednesday announced new rules that would allow immigration officials to detain migrant children for a longer period of time, ripping up a long-standing set of protections that prevent migrant children from being detained for more than 20 days.
The Flores settlement, established in 1997 after a 1985 class-action lawsuit involving several migrant children, limits the amount of time the government is allowed to detain an immigrant child to 20 days or less. The agreement also establishes minimum guidelines for safe and sanitary conditions in detention facilities, requiring the government to provide children with basic needs like food, water and medical care.
The rule change would allow families to be detained indefinitely by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being transferred from border custody. Barring any potential court order, the change would go into effect 60 days from Friday.
Doctors, psychologists and child welfare experts have said that even relatively brief time in detention is damaging to children’s mental and physical health.
The administration claims that its inability to indefinitely detain kids is one of the drivers of unauthorized migration to the U.S. Since the beginning of the fiscal year in October, Border Patrol says it has apprehended more than 430,000 family units ― parents and kids traveling together ― at the southwest border.
“The driving factor in this crisis is weakness in our legal framework for immigration,” Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, said Wednesday at a press conference.
McAleenan called the Flores settlement a “key gap in our immigration framework,” arguing that the rule change closes a “legal loophole” effectively “incentivizing illegal entry.”
The rule change, first proposed last year, continues the Trump administration’s expanded practices of separating families and detaining immigrants in teeming border facilities with inhumane conditions. Recently, a number of undocumented immigrants have died while in the custody of immigration officials, including children.
The proposed rule will almost certainly face pushback from immigrant and human rights groups, including a likely legal challenge.
“This is yet another cruel attack on children, who the Trump administration has targeted again and again with its anti-immigrant policies,” Madhuri Grewal, American Civil Liberties Union policy counsel, said in a statement. “The government should not be jailing kids, and certainly shouldn’t be seeking to put more kids in jail for longer. Congress must not fund this.”
The Trump administration has floated indefinite detention of kids as an alternative to the much-criticized policy of family separation the president carried out last year. Last year, officials suggested that locking up kids with their parents would keep families together.
The Obama administration dramatically expanded the use of family immigrant detention after parents and children began coming to the U.S. without authorization in large numbers in and after 2014. The administration had previously reduced family detention, but opened new centers in order to deal with the influx, to the dismay of immigrant rights activists and some Democratic politicians.
Now, the Trump administration wants to expand family detention even further, another step in a large-scale effort to keep migrants ― even asylum-seekers ― from coming to the U.S. The administration has also implemented policies to make asylum-seekers remain in Mexico while awaiting court proceedings and to bar asylum for people who pass through another country without seeking safety there (the latter was partially blocked, but allowed to go into effect in Texas and New Mexico).
In addition to cracking down on undocumented immigrants, the administration has also targeted legal immigrants. Earlier this month, it announced new guidelines that would effectively prohibit immigrants on government assistance, such as food stamps and housing vouchers, from applying for visas or permanent residency.
This story has been updated throughout.