If not family separation or family detention, then what

If not family separation or family detention, then what

It has been encouraging to see politicians from both parties come together with civil society organizations, business leaders, celebrities, and every living first lady to successfully condemn the Trump administration’s family separation policy for its clear violation of human rights and American values. Unfortunately, the president’s new executive order seems to be just another hurried attempt to paper over the gruesome optics of an ill-conceived and cruel set of immigration tactics.

The order may shield the administration from the political fallout of the images and sounds of crying children being torn away from their families, but it will do little to protect the girls and boys that come into government custody.

The order allows for immigrant families to be detained together, “where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.” Yet, the administration has released little information about what it will do for the over 2,300 children who have already been separated from their families. The administration has also failed to provide public guidance on what it will do when there are not enough resources to detain families together, or when doing so is inconsistent with the law.


The order will likely soon run into trouble with the courts, as it appears to be in conflict with the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which has been interpreted as prohibiting authorities from detaining children for over 20 days, even in the company of their parents or legal guardians. The agreement also mandates that children be held in the “least restrictive setting appropriate.”

Wednesday’s executive order directs the Attorney General to request the courts to modify the settlement to allow family detention throughout their immigration proceedings, which usually surpass 20 days. As Congress continues to deliberate over immigration reform, it has also considered including measures to allow families to be detained together indefinitely.

While the suspension of the administration’s family separation practice is a move in the right direction, the Flores settlement was designed to resolve multiple lawsuits related to the mistreatment of unaccompanied children under federal custody, which is out of step with the notion of detaining children indefinitely.

Currently, many families are being placed in private, government-contracted centers. These centers offer a model of what a policy of indefinite family detention could look like. Investigations have found contracted family detention centers and shelters for unaccompanied minors to be in violation of operating standards and basic human rights in numerous cases, including several sexual abuse allegations. More broadly, research has found detention to be destructive to children’s physical and mental health and development. Detention also compromises adults’ parenting abilities and exposes children to the risk of violence, especially when girls and boys are held in the same facilities as unrelated adults.

All of these stressors compound the traumas that these children may be experiencing while fleeing from violence in their home countries. For these reasons and more, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers concluded two years ago that “detention is generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families.”

Nevertheless, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE seems committed to creating a network of facilities, with aid from the Department of Defense and other executive departments, to detain families indefinitely. A Pentagon spokesperson said on Thursday that the government is already preparing to shelter some 20,000 unaccompanied children on American military bases.

This approach would amount to either negligence of the existing evidence for how best to care for children, or blatant disregard for these children’s wellbeing. Either way, the forces that successfully pressured President Trump to suspend family separation should continue to exert their influence until the administration supports a strategy that treats these children and their families as humans rather than scourges.

Such a strategy would include clear measures to reunite already-separated children with their families. It would also build the appropriate systems for adjudicating asylum claims efficiently. Rather than mass detention, the administration should support community-based alternatives — with access to decent healthcare and education — for families awaiting their decisions. This would require investing more resources in the Office of Refugee Resettlement so that it can care for asylum seekers and refugees properly, rather than hamstringing it with budget reductions.

President Trump would also do well to start thinking strategically about migration. While terrorizing families with the threat of separation and imprisonment is unlikely to stop people fleeing armed conflict from seeking asylum in the U.S., cultivating stronger relationships with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries will be necessary to addressing migration in the long run. This would mean working with local governments and civil society in these countries to mitigate the drivers of violence, instead of slashing their aid, as President Trump has considered doing.

At this moment in history, the Trump administration would do well to remember Nelson Mandela’s words, “the true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children.”

Lindsay Stark is an associate professor for the program on Forced Migration and Health and a director at the CPC learning network at Columbia University. Cyril Bennouna is a senior researcher and Lindsay Stark is an Associate Professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.