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Trump administration moves to end limits on detaining migrant children
The Trump administration on Thursday said it is seeking to indefinitely jail migrant children with their families, a policy that would overturn 20 years of protections for immigrant children.
Under the Flores Settlement Agreement, which has governed the detention of migrant children since 1997, detaining children for more than 20 days is illegal. The proposed regulations would terminate that agreement.
Under a proposed rule issued Thursday by the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, the administration said it would issue new regulations that "satisfy the basic purpose" of the Flores settlement.
The proposal would ensure migrant children "are treated with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors," the administration said.
The proposal has been in the works for months, as the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have sought ways to deal with the influx of families illegally crossing the country's southern border.
Administration officials and congressional Republicans have cited the the Flores agreement as one of the primary reasons for the "zero tolerance" policy of separating children from their families when they are detained at the border.
"Today, legal loopholes significantly hinder the Department's ability to appropriately detain and promptly remove family units that have no legal basis to remain in the country," DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement. "This rule addresses one of the primary pull factors for illegal immigration and allows the federal government to enforce immigration laws as passed by Congress."
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) Thursday said he doesn't think families should be separated.
"My position has been really clear about this. We should not be separating people at the border. I believe the administration also agrees, we should not be separating families at the border," Ryan said.
Democrats and immigration advocacy groups were quick to condemn the proposed changes.
"This is an attack on families trying to rebuild their lives. It is already extraordinarily cruel to lock up families fleeing violence and persecution-why attempt to change the law to keep them there as long as possible?," said Ashley Houghton, tactical campaigns manager at Amnesty International USA.
"Kirstjen Nielsen just announced a new Trump administration proposal to indefinitely incarcerate immigrant children in what are essentially prisons. It apparently needs to be said that this is cruel and inhumane. There's a lot of news today, but we can't let this go ignored," Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) tweeted.
The proposal is likely to result in a new court battle for the administration, which was already facing blowback from its short-lived zero tolerance policy. The practice was meant to stem the flow of illegal immigrant families, but was condemned by Democrats and activist groups.
The administration ultimately reversed course, and has been slowly working to reunite children with their families as part of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. As of last week, nearly 500 children were still in government-run shelters without their parents.
A federal judge previously struck down a motion by the Justice Department to roll back the Flores settlement.
The proposal would allow the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to expand family detention centers in order to keep children and their parents detained together for the length of their court proceedings.
The rule also seeks to prevent migrant children from being released into the custody of anyone who is not a parent or legal guardian.
DHS also said they will treat any undocumented child they encounter who is younger than 18 years old and who does not have a parent in the country as "unaccompanied" and will transfer them to HHS for indefinite detention.
The Flores settlement also requires that children can only be held in licensed facilities. There are no states that issue licenses to family detention centers.
According to the proposal, the administration will ensure new detention facilities meet current standards, "as evaluated by a third-party entity engaged by ICE." The announcement does not say who the third party would be.
The proposal will be published Friday, and will be open to public comments for 60 days.