Cost of Trump's 'zero-tolerance' pledge: Detained, neglected and unvaccinated migrant children

 Cost of Trump's 'zero-tolerance' pledge: Detained, neglected and unvaccinated migrant children
© CBS News

The Trump administration recently adopted an official policy to abuse children. Yes, you heard that correctly. The policy is in the form of a rule just issued by the Department of Homeland Security and it deserves close attention. 

The DHS rule for the “Apprehension, Processing, Care, and Custody of Alien Minors and Unaccompanied Alien Children” is intended to terminate the 1997 Flores settlement agreement that resolved a class-action lawsuit on behalf of immigrant minors against the U.S. government. The settlement set national standards and protections for the detention of immigrant children including, as a federal judge subsequently required, an effective prohibition on detaining children for more than 20 days.

But Flores stood in the way of Trump’s “zero tolerance” campaign pledge to jail and deport undocumented immigrants because detained families with children had to be released after 20 days. In an end run around the Flores settlement the Trump administration took nearly 3,000 children, many under the age of 5-years-old, away from their parents, who were then packed off to detention facilities with no limit on the length of their incarceration. 

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The sheer inhumanity of the family separations proved too much for even many of the president’s supporters, including his own daughter. Trump was forced to ostensibly end family separations (it continues) and many children have yet to be reunited with their parents.

White House policy aide Stephen MillerStephen MillerThe Memo: Drip, drip of revelations damages Trump Trump says acting Homeland Security chief McAleenan will step down Overnight Health Care — Presented by Coalition Against Surprise Medical Billing — Judge blocks Trump 'public charge' rule | Appeals court skeptical of Trump arguments for Medicaid work requirements | CDC offers guidance for treating vaping-related cases MORE then hatched the DHS rule to get rid of Flores and the 20-day rule, which would allow DHS to send entire families to detention centers for an indefinite period. As a practical matter it’s likely to be least two to three years, the typical time required for removal hearings and, if ordered, removal to the country of origin.

Two highly qualified medical and psychiatric experts for DHS, acting from a professional duty to prevent child abuse, wrote the Senate Whistleblowing Caucus that “detention of innocent children should never occur in a civilized society.” That’s especially true when the children are detained in facilities that, as a federal judge found, lacked adequate food, clean water and basic hygiene items. The children won’t even be vaccinated against infectious diseases.

National medical organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have also warned that children will suffer physical and mental harm from family detentions — including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. Even DHS, in responding to criticism of the rule, acknowledged that “detention and custody may have negative impacts for minors and adults.”

Studies suggest that the Japanese-American children who were interned with their families during World War II suffered life-long psychological anguish and increased mortality from cardiovascular disease. So, it’s a disturbing historical irony that the Trump administration plans to use the site of a former Japanese-American internment camp to temporarily detain immigrant children. 

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The Trump administration argues that without family detention undocumented immigrants will fail to appear for removal hearings, the alleged “catch and release” of prior administrations which Trump also pledged in his 2016 campaign to end. 

Apart from the fact that these policies are simply indefensible, this rationale is also disingenuous in suggesting it is intended to deter migration. The majority of undocumented immigrants do show up in court. Other means exist for assuring compliance that do not harm children and are far less expensive than family detentions. These include parental ankle bracelet monitors and programs like the Family Case Management Program, which successfully guide immigrant families through the legal system and achieved a court compliance rate of nearly 100 percent.

But that was an Obama-era program that Trump discontinued. Evidently, he would rather lock away and neglect children than tolerate an effective Obama program to assure that immigrants appear in court.

The Flores settlement is subject to federal court oversight, which means that a federal judge will likely rule soon whether the DHS rule can replace it. But this much is clear. This White House is a moral black hole in which the normal human physics of empathy and compassion do not exist.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.