We Mustn’t Allow Migrant Children to Stay Behind Bars Indefinitely

On April 23, the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments on a Trump administration regulation that would allow it to indefinitely detain migrant families who cross the border seeking asylum.

It’s crucial that the regulation is dismantled. Asylum is a well-established right both in the United States and in international law. And the Flores settlement — a decades-old agreement — prohibits children from being held in detention for long periods of time.

That’s for good reason. As previous research and the current coronavirus pandemic make clear, detention has devastating impacts on children’s physical and mental health.

The Trump administration has tried time and time again to interfere with internationally recognized migrant rights. Now, the courts must help end this crusade.

The Flores settlement was implemented back in 1997. It established conditions for the treatment of children under the age of 18 in detention — and required these minors to be released without unnecessary delay to parents or other authorized adults. The limit on detention is 20 days.

This agreement is a crucial part of immigration policy. Many migrant children cross the border seeking asylum because they fear persecution in their countries of origin. Putting these children behind bars in the United States for weeks or months would continue this abuse and trauma. Additionally, both international and U.S. law acknowledge asylum is a fundamental protection.

In August, the Trump administration attempted to upend the Flores settlement. It instituted a rule allowing it to indefinitely keep migrant parents and children behind bars. Weeks later, Federal District Court Judge Dolly Gee in California blocked the rule. Now, the 9th Circuit is hearing oral arguments about the policy.

It is crucial that the court does not allow the administration’s regulation to stand — both for legal and moral reasons. The Trump administration is essentially trying to circumvent Congress and rewrite the law by issuing this rule.

If the Flores settlement is uprooted, migrant children would be subject to a world of additional psychological and physical harms. Proof is everywhere. For example, my organization, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, spoke directly with detained families about their experience in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Many facilities were kept far too cold and didn’t serve sufficient food to people. Children cried out regularly from fear and discomfort. Many lost a lot of weight. Often, it was difficult for parents to get medicine for children.

Nor is it only in ICE family detention centers that children are experiencing this abuse. A 2019 analysis of a border patrol station in Texas revealed similarly horrid conditions. Children were forced to take care of other children. Many were ill. Food, water, and sanitation were all far from satisfactory. Everywhere that children are confined in prison-like settings, in short, we are seeing the same problems.

The coronavirus pandemic illustrates even further that detention centers are breeding grounds for disease. Their cramped, unsanitary conditions allow illnesses to thrive. Dozens of children have tested positive for coronavirus.

The Flores agreement mandates that the U.S. government act in the best interests of children. But the Trump administration is trying to dismantle these health and safety protections left and right. It is crucial that the 9th Circuit doesn’t allow Trump’s rule to stand — especially in the middle of a pandemic.

We must end the scapegoating of migrants. Instead of blaming refugee children who are at the mercy of the state, the administration should focus on ways to create a better, safer and fairer society for all of us.

Joshua Leach is a policy analyst at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Rachel Gore Freed, J.D., is a vice president and chief program officer of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, as well as a human rights lawyer and advocate how has worked tirelessly to secure the release of asylum-seekers from detention centers and on developing more humane policies.

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