The Department of Homeland Security wants to hold immigrant families with children in prison-like facilities long-term — potentially for years — and is proposing a new rule that would allow it to do just that.
The rule would give DHS the power to license new and existing detention centers to house children indefinitely. Currently there is just one facility that is licensed to detain families with children long-term.
The new rule would free the administration from a 20-year-old court-monitored set of guidelines that guarantee humane conditions for detained children known as the Flores Settlement Agreement, and allow DHS to detain children for the entire duration of their parents’ immigration cases in unlicensed centers.
Under the current structure, the government can only detain families for 20 days unless the detention centers have a state child care license. DHS has tried repeatedly but has so far been unable to get licenses for two of the three family detention centers — South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, and Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.
The third detention center — Berks County Residential Center, in Leesport, Pennsylvania — has a state license and is therefore allowed to hold children and their parents indefinitely, but the governor is trying to revoke it.
The new rule would allow the federal government to provide itself with a child care license through an “outside entity” for existing and new facilities, greatly expanding its ability to detain immigrant children long-term. The rule would allow DHS to monitor itself to make sure children are treated humanely while they are held for long periods of time. DHS cites the 20-day limit set by the Flores agreement as an incentive for immigrants to come to the U.S., knowing they will be released.
“Vastly more families are now coming illegally to the southern border, hoping that they will be released into the interior rather than detained and removed”
“Vastly more families are now coming illegally to the southern border, hoping that they will be released into the interior rather than detained and removed,” a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said in an email. “Promulgating this regulation and terminating the FSA is an important step toward regaining control over the border.”
The rule is likely to be challenged by child welfare and immigration advocates in the court of U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in the Central District of California, which has overseen the agreement since 1997.
Medical professionals have long raised concerns about the serious health consequences of detaining children. A VICE News investigation found that a toddler from Guatemala, Mariee, who was held at the Dilley facility with her mother, Yazmin Juárez, for 20 days in March died after leaving the facility earlier this year from a respiratory infection that was first detected at the detention center. Pediatricians told VICE News that confinement can make children more vulnerable to viral infections and the stress can affect their ability to recover.
In July, two doctors contracted by the Department of Homeland Security released a review of medical care in family detention centers over the last four years. The doctors found a host of problems, including widespread illness among kids and long waits for medical care, and called the practice of family detention “an exploitation and an assault on the dignity and health of children and families.”
Congressman Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, sent a letter to DHS Wednesday with 16 Hispanic Caucus colleagues demanding an investigation into Mariee’s death the conditions for children at family detention centers. In a statement Thursday, Castro said the administration is already failing at protecting children in detention.
“I am deeply concerned about the Trump Administration’s preparations to strip fundamental protections from migrant children that would allow for the long-term imprisonment of families,” he said in a statement. “This decision will create worse conditions for these children and will inevitably leave lasting psychological footprints.”
Cover: In this Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, photo, provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, mothers and their children stand in line at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)