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Trump to allow indefinite detention of migrant kids

August 21, 2019

The US Department of Homeland Security has said it intends to scrap a rule that prohibits the detention of migrant children for more than 20 days. The step is expected to be challenged in court.

A kid crying in front of a US Border Patrol truck with families in the background
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Gay

The US government said on Wednesday that it would remove limits on how long migrant children can be detained. The move would allow for migrant families detained at the Mexican border to be held until their asylum case is processed, which can take up to several months.

To allow for indefinite detention, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it would terminate the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, a legal ruling that barred the government from holding migrant children in detention for more than 20 days.

The Flores rule, which came in response to a lawsuit citing chronic abuse of migrants in detention, requires that migrants receive adequate and humane care. It requires children be released within 20 days and placed in the custody of their parents or relatives.

Read more: Opinion: Central American governments must share blame for migrant deaths

But acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the ruling "has generally forced the government to release families into the country after just 20 days, incentivizing illegal entry."

"Human smugglers advertise, and intending migrants know well, that even if they cross the border illegally, arriving at our border with a child has meant that they will be released into the United States to wait for court proceedings that could take five years or more," McAleenan said.

‘A humanitarian necessity'

The Trump administration argued that getting rid of the Flores agreement was a humane approach to the crisis of record Central American migration. According to DHS officials, some 390,000 family units have been caught at the border since last October.

"To protect these children from abuse, and stop this illegal flow, we must close these loopholes. This is an urgent humanitarian necessity," Trump said in a statement.

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The new policy, which will be implemented in the next 60 days and is expected to be challenged in court, is the latest in a series of efforts by the administration to reduce migration.

On July 15 the White House unveiled a rule that would bar almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the southern border. This month, it announced a new regulation that would only grant visas and permanent residency to those who could fully support themselves financially.

The Trump administration has come under fire over these recent measures, but also for a past policy of separating children from their families, which a court ruling ultimately barred. Recently, the White House also received a torrent of criticism for its treatment of migrants in detention centers.

McAleenan said the new rule would set better standards of care for detained families, holding them in "fundamentally different" facilities that would include community living rooms, classrooms, libraries and football fields.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly warned that detention is not suitable for children, as it can lead to negative physical and emotional symptoms and trauma. 

Read more: Opinion: Donald Trump and the battle for the American nation

'A cruel attack on children'

Migrant and human rights advocacy groups decried the government's plan and accused authorities of mistreating migrants.

"This is yet another cruel attack on children, who the Trump administration has targeted again and again with its anti-immigrant policies," American Civil Liberties Union official Madhuri Grewal said.

Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the move showed that the Trump administration's cruelty was boundless.

"Make no mistake: this new rule is about letting President Trump and Stephen Miller keep children in awful conditions for longer periods of time and continue the administration's horrid treatment of innocent migrant families fleeing unthinkable hardship."

jcg/sms (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)

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