Immigration

Locking up more immigrant kids for longer is both inhumane and unnecessary

More immigrant kids need to be locked up, and for longer periods of time. That's the gist of a new policy put forward by the Donald Trump administration on Thursday. The administration has proposed regulations that would allow it to get around the Flores settlement, a court agreement that mandates special protections for children in immigration detention. According to a Department of Homeland Security statement, the new policies are designed to treat immigrant children "with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors." 

But this administration has an absolutely dismal record when it comes to caring for immigrant children. Now it wants to hold them in detention indefinitely, and under looser standards of care. Under any other administration, such a proposal would seem a shocking disregard for the wellbeing of children. Coming from the Trump administration, it is simply the latest of an ongoing series of extreme immigration measures.

The Flores settlement is a 1997 agreement reached after a class action lawsuit was brought against the government on behalf of unaccompanied children being held in immigration detention. Under its provisions, children may not be held in immigration detention indefinitely. They must be held in state-licensed facilities, in the "least-restrictive setting" available, for no more than 20 days. Although the original agreement only covered unaccompanied children in immigration detention, in 2015 a federal judge expanded it to cover children who arrived with their parents as well.   

"Immigration detention" is basically a euphemism for incarceration, so many people would probably agree that it's a good idea that we have some special provisions for the accommodation of children in prison-like conditions.

Not the Trump administration. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement announcing the new rule proposal, "Today, legal loopholes significantly hinder the Department's ability to appropriately detain and promptly remove family units that have no basis to remain in the country. 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."  

It speaks volumes that Nielsen dismisses the Flores settlement, which was designed to protect children, as "legal loopholes." She also asserts that U.S. immigration policies amount to a "pull" factor for those arriving on our southern border without authorization. While she provides no evidence to support this notion, there is ample reporting and research showing that it is actually "push" factors - such as deadly gang violence - driving people out of their home countries in Central America. 

The Trump administration's proposed rule change could affect thousands of immigrants. Under the new regulations, the government would vastly expand family detention. It would create its own licensing program for family detention centers, in effect, regulating itself. It would hold families in detention for the duration of their immigration cases, which could be weeks or months.

It is astonishing that the Trump administration wants to expand family detention. It has not cleaned up the last mess it made, with its abhorrent "family separations" policy. A status report released Thursday shows that there are still hundreds of kids in government custody after being separated from their parents, and that progress towards reuniting them has been slow. Although those children lucky enough to have been reunited with their parents may well be traumatized for life, the administration is moving ahead with a policy that would traumatize even more kids.   

True, our immigration system is flawed and in need of an overhaul. But better alternatives to detention exist, like ankle bracelets for parents and supervised community release programs. Imprisoning children with their families simply is not a viable or humane solution to any perceived immigration problem. Consider that last month a toddler allegedly died after being released from detention, or that there have been myriad reports of sexual abuse and harassment at detention centers. Children in immigration detention deserve more protection, not less. Numerous child welfare experts and psychologists agree that immigration detention is not good for children's health and well-being. The long-term consequences of detention on children can lead to everything from PTSD to suicide. 

The Trump administration's proposed rules regarding children in detention are a violation of the human rights of families. They represent an improper end-run around our legal system. Worst of all, these regulations are not designed with the best interests of children in mind - they are just another shameful attempt to crack down as hard as possible on vulnerable immigrants.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.

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