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Trump Administration Seeks to Detain Children Indefinitely

Children Experience Severe Harms in Detention

A Mission Police Dept. officer (L), and a U.S. Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. © 2018 John Moore/Getty Images

Trauma, suicidal feelings, dangerously inadequate medical care. These are only some of the harms that immigrant mothers told Human Rights Watch their children were experiencing in US family detention centers, before a federal judge ruled in 2015 that children detained with parents must be released within 20 days.

Now the Trump administration wants to turn back the clock, proposing a new regulation to avoid the 20-day detention limit and opening the door to indefinite detention of migrant children and their families.

The new regulation, if adopted, would gut the 2015 Flores settlement, which was designed to address serious abuses experienced by child migrants. That settlement also created standards for how children should be held in the limited circumstances in which they cannot be released. To be consistent with international human rights law, children should not be held in immigration detention, except for very short periods of time for the purpose of effectuating a deportation order.

The new proposed regulation seeks to evade these standards by shifting licensing of family detention facilities from state child welfare agencies to the Department of Homeland Security, the same agency criticized for poor oversight over adult detention centers. If this regulation goes into effect, thousands more children would experience the same dangerous detention conditions Human Rights Watch documented in 2015, potentially for prolonged and indefinite periods.

The US government claims family detention is needed to ensure families who have no right to remain in the country show up to court and are efficiently deported. But the government’s own experience with community-based case management systems shows that they can be effective in ensuring that people who are released, rather than detained, show up in court. It should be dramatically scaling up those programs, not looking for ways to ramp up the abusive detention of children.

This regulation is not yet finalized – there will be a 60-day public comment period and it will very likely face legal challenges. Everyone who rallied, wrote their representatives, spoke out, and organized against family separation should take note. Detaining families is wrong, and like family separation, it causes grievous harm to children.

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