Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter MORE (R-S.C.) recently introduced legislation that he calls the Secure and Protect Act of 2019. This mislabeled bill would do anything but secure and protect the kids who reach our southern border after fleeing their homes in Central America. Calling for a five-fold increase in maximum allowable detention to 100 days, the proposal is a grave violation of the rights of children. As an advocate for children and a believer in the ideal that America is a welcoming nation, it concerns me to see this legislation gain traction in Congress.
The attempted lengthening of child detentions relates to the 1997 Flores settlement agreement, which defines the time and conditions under which U.S. officials can detain immigrant children and allows for a 20-day maximum in certain extreme cases.
The agreement was named for Jenny Lisette Flores, a 15-year-old girl from El Salvador. A brutal civil war caused Jenny to flee her country in 1985. She traveled northward and attempted to enter the U.S. to be with her aunt. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) arrested Jenny at the border near San Ysidro, Calif., and she was placed in a juvenile detention center, where, according to the Marquette Law Review, she was handcuffed and strip-searched.
As a father of a young teenage girl myself, I cannot begin to fathom the outrage and pain that must have been felt by Jenny’s family. Jenny’s mother was afraid to seek the release of her daughter for fear of being deported, and the INS refused to grant Jenny’s aunt custody because it wouldn't release minors to "third-party adults.” Immigrant rights groups filed a class-action suit on behalf of the girl and other minors, eventually leading to the Flores agreement during the Clinton administration. Despite decades-long adherence to Flores, the future status of immigrant children currently being detained remains unclear.
Graham’s proposal to increase the duration of detention for minors would have severe negative impacts on the well-being of children, including long-term damage to social and emotional development and increased risk of exploitation and child abuse. A number of medical organizations, including the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, have issued letters of protest, citing an increased risk of anxiety and depression in the children, as well as post-traumatic stress and attention-deficit disorder.
Save the Children Action Network has worked closely with Sen. Graham in the past. Sometimes we agree, such as when we joined together to fight for compassionate, life-saving international assistance that addresses malnutrition and pneumonia. Other times, like today, we’re on opposite sides of an important issue. Graham believes expanded detention of children will act as a deterrent to asylum seekers and migrants. He is wrong.
Prolonging the detention of young children and ignoring their legal rights is not a constructive way to combat a migrant crisis that worsens daily. Apprehensions of migrants at the southern border surpassed 500,000 for the fiscal year so far, already easily exceeding the total for fiscal year 2018, which was nearly 400,000, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
More and more families are fleeing systemic violence and poverty in Central America every day, risking it all to make the perilous trek through Mexico, and seeking better lives in America. They are currently doing so with the full knowledge that their children risk detention at our border. Yet they still come. Expanding detention violates children’s rights and will harm children for longer – it will do nothing to address the underlying crisis.
America is the land of opportunity and will always be an attractive destination for those seeking a better life. We should celebrate our heritage of welcoming generations of immigrants since our nation’s founding. Nonetheless, Graham and his colleagues are right to be concerned about the current crisis, which is testing the capacities of our immigration system. The solution is not to deprive children who arrive here of their rights.
A more sensible approach is to make strategic investments in cooperation with the Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, so that we can help create a safer, more prosperous environment in these countries and encourage more families to build the better lives they seek in their home communities. I am hopeful that Graham abandons this misguided and harmful proposal and instead joins those who believe we can enhance our security and protect more children by pursuing remedies for the root causes of this migrant crisis in Central America.
Mark Shriver is the CEO of Save the Children Action Network.