The Shocking Cruelty of Indefinite Detention

Formerly detained migrants describe what would happen if the Flores settlement were dismantled.
August 23, 2019, 9:13pm
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Photo by David McNew, via Getty Images.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that it would issue a rule to withdraw from the Flores settlement, which would effectively allow the government to detain undocumented migrants indefinitely and deny them basic needs.

Human rights groups throughout the country immediately condemned the decision to withdraw from the Flores settlement, which sets a national standard for the detention and treatment of minors in federal custody. According to immigration experts, the decision will have devastating effects on the health of children and families, if it’s not blocked by a federal judge first.


The Flores settlement is currently the only established set of protections for immigrant minors detained in the U.S. Signed in 1997, the agreement says that minors cannot be detained for more than 20 days and that during that time they must be held in the “least restrictive setting” possible. The agreement also specifies sanitary and safety conditions to which facilities detaining minors must adhere, among other protections.

Even with the Flores settlement intact (although advocates have long been pointing out that it was never fully been met) at least seven children have died in immigration custody since 2018. Official reports and anecdotal accounts have concluded that detained children and adults are being denied basic needs, including showers, toothpaste, soap, diapers, a place to wash their hands, and clean bottles for babies. Sanitary conditions have led to outbreaks of the flu, lice, chicken pox, and scabies. Human rights advocates fear what will happen to children and adults if the Flores settlement is lifted, exacerbating these already inhumane conditions.

In a statement to VICE, Erika Andiola, chief of advocacy at immigrant rights organization RAICES, called the Trump Administration’s move to get rid of the Flores settlement an “emergency.” She added, “[It] will have devastating consequences for the lives of tens of thousands of people. It will lead to the indefinite detention of unaccompanied children and families in immigration prisons, and it will permit their continued mistreatment inside these detention centers.”


Similarly, immigration lawyer and executive director at Just Futures Law Paromita Shah fears that the poor health conditions and human rights violations inside detention centers will only get worse if this rule is allowed to continue. “It’s a profound example that cruelty is the point,” she said. “It’s going to normalize and expand the conditions that we’ve been seeing for a long time.

The Trump Administration refers to the Flores settlement as a “loophole” because it requires children to be released to family or a legal guardian. With its new rule, the administration is aiming to hold minors indefinitely, and will be able to do so in unlicensed facilities. According to the White House, the rule “will ensure alien families can be held together during immigration proceedings” and will “protect child welfare by closing an immigration loophole exploited by human smugglers.”

At the end of 2018, RAICES collected comments from people recently detained by U.S. immigration agencies about the impact that ending the Flores settlement would have. The comments describe such circumstances as being made to sleep on the floor every night, being contained in windowless rooms, being harassed by unnecessarily aggressive guards, and having children taken away from their families without any update about their location or wellbeing.

“Detention has affected my son emotionally, as well as psychologically, because [kids] should be free and play freely,” reads one comment from a parent named Carlos Alberto Santos. “The truth is this is a torture that has been imposed on them. This has been a prison, a living hell, for them, for all of our little ones.”

Another, from Celso Castillo, reads: “When we arrived at the border, the nightmare and suffering began. [They] took away my child and put me in the hielera for 12 days, where I only ate soup for every meal and slept on the floor covered by an aluminum sheet. Later, I was moved to another facility in Flores, Arizona, while still unaware about anything regarding my child. That is why I, and other fathers who have suffered, ask the president of this country to stop doing this to other human beings. It’s a shame that they make us suffer in this way because we are nothing without our children.”

And a comment from Josnin Josue Mendoza Antunez, describes the experience from a child’s perspective. “When my father and I presented ourselves in front of immigration, the officials did not tell me they would separate me from my father,” the comment reads. “That same night they took me to another place where there was other kids. There the official of immigration was racist, he would yell at us without justification. He separated me from the group and put me in a room by myself. The other kids ages 13 and under were in another room where they could watch television. I remember a brother and sister that were also separated. They tried sending each other signals of love through the window until the racist official went and placed paper in all the windows, so they couldn’t see each other anymore.”

While many immigration experts are horrified by the rule, the Trump administration’s move to do away with the Flores settlement did not come as a shock; this isn’t the first time they’ve tried it.

“It’s not surprising that it’s happening now,” said Shah. The administration has been trying to overturn the agreement for years. Last summer, the administration lost a court battle in its attempt to roll back the Flores settlement. Earlier this month, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration’s appeal of that decision, in which the administration argued that the Flores settlement did not mean that the government had to provide detained children with soap or allow them to sleep. Shah expects that the rule will be heavily challenged once the Trump administration releases the 900-plus page document outlining the specifics expected Friday.

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