On 21 August, the Trump administration announced a proposal to eliminate a federal court agreement that set a 20-day limit for holding children and replace it with a regulation that would allow the government to indefinitely detain migrant children with their parents.
Democratic presidential contender Beto O’Rourke tweeted on 21 August:
“Thousands of kids separated from their parents. Seven children dead as a result of our care. Countless more sleeping on concrete floors under tin foil blankets. Today, Trump decided the solution is to cage them for longer. The cruelty will only get worse—until we end it.”
By replacing the agreement known as the Flores settlement, the government could dramatically expand family detention and increase how long children are held in custody. The government would also have more power to determine the standards of care for children and families in custody.
The regulation is certain to face legal challenges and must also be examined by the judge who oversees the Flores settlement. It will take effect 60 days after it is formally published later this week, barring other legal delays.
“This is yet another cruel attack on children, who the Trump administration has targeted again and again with its anti-immigrant policies,” said Madhuri Grewal, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government should not be jailing kids, and certainly shouldn’t be seeking to put more kids in jail for longer.”
The rule, unveiled by acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, is part of the administration’s aggressive effort to revamp immigration laws as the number of families and unaccompanied minors crossing the US-Mexico border has increased.
In recent months, the administration has proposed rules that could make it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards, worked to end temporary protected status for migrants from certain countries and limit avenues to declare asylum.
The Flores Agreement stems from a 1987 case in which Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old girl from El Salvador, and three other migrant children filed a class action lawsuit against the government over poor detention conditions for minors in US custody. Flores and the other children alleged they were housed in brutal conditions, in razor wired-fenced facilities with adult men and women, while being subjected to abuse and routine strip searches.
In 1997, both parties reached an agreement that set standards for the care of migrant children in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS), a now-defunct branch of the Justice Department.
As part of the Flores agreement, a federal appeals panel found last week that detained children should get edible food, clean water, soap and toothpaste after the government argued hygiene products did not need to be provided. It was also a team of Flores attorneys who raised the alarm about dire conditions for migrant children at border processing facilities in June.
Joann Bautista, policy associate at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said: “The new rule announced today is essentially a regression, completely throwing out all the safeguards to keep children safe that have been in place for decades.”
The US government currently only has three facilities designed to detain and house migrant families, two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania. Under the new regulation, the Homeland Security official said these facilities would be subject to an audit from an unspecified third party that would ensure the locations comply with licensing standards.
There has been a major influx of families and children apprehended at the southern border in recent months. Already this year, more than 430,000 family members have been arrested for crossing the southern border illegally, compared to around 100,000 for all of last year.