Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan departs after speaking about upcoming changes to the Flores ruling at a news conference at the Reagan Building in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
 
(Washington, DC) – A Trump administration final regulation announced today could result in severe harm to migrant children who may be held in immigration detention indefinitely in the United States. The rule seeks to replace the longstanding Flores court settlement that imposed detention standards and time limits.
 
“The detention of children can lead to trauma, suicidal feelings, and exposure to dangerously inadequate medical care,” said Clara Long, acting deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “No amount of time in detention is safe for children and prolonged detention is particularly harmful.”
 
The core principle and requirement of the Flores Agreement is that migrant children taken into detention should be released as “expeditiously” as possible. The new rule provides instead for the indefinite detention of children with their parents in federal immigration facilities pending resolution of their immigration proceedings. In doing so, it seeks to reverse a ruling under the Flores settlement that children not be held for more than 20 days in facilities not licensed for childcare.
 
During a press conference Wednesday morning, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said average stays in 2014 and 2015 for families in detention leading up to that ruling was 50 days.
 
But many families were held for longer than that during 2014 and 2015, according to Human Rights Watch research from the time. Their prolonged detention took a severe psychological toll on them. Other studies of detained immigrant children have also found high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, and psychologists agree that “even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children.”
 
“The US government claims family detention is needed to ensure families show up to court,” Long said. “But the government has done nothing to expand community-based case management programs that led the vast majority of people released from immigration detention to show up to court. The government should be dramatically scaling up those programs, not looking for ways to ramp up the abusive detention of children.”
 
Human Rights Watch submitted comments on the Flores regulation when they were proposed last fall, recommending that the administration withdraw the rule and instead dedicate their efforts to advancing policies that safeguard the health, safety, and best interests of children and their families, not least through robust, good-faith compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement.
 
Legal advocates have already filed a notice that they will challenge the rule in court. If not stopped by a judge, the new rule will take effect in 60 days.