Dark Days for Immigrant Children

Children’s Rights is challenging new regulations that would overturn protections for immigrant children under the Flores Agreement and allow the indefinite detention of children and families.

Children’s Rights and Advocacy Organizations Challenge Indefinite Detention of Families and Children

Labor Day, a uniquely American holiday on the cusp of summer and the busy days of fall, has come and gone. For children across the country, the day marks a rite of passage and the start of a new school year.

But for the thousands of immigrant children being held by the US government in inhumane and substandard conditions, it is a different story. These children are not only deprived of an education while in detention; they also suffer from high rates of PTSD, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and other conditions. Even detention of less than two weeks is associated with long-term developmental consequences and poor health outcomes.

And now, if a new rule from the federal government takes effect, these innocent children will pay an even greater price.

In August, the administration moved to upend a policy that has for decades protected immigrant children in government care. Under the 1997 settlement, known as the Flores Agreement, children must be removed from detention expeditiously, and held in detention for no longer than 20 days unless they are housed in state-licensed facilities. The proposed policy change would allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to detain children and families indefinitely in unlicensed federal facilities without the protection of regular and comprehensive oversight by an independent child welfare agency. This is a punitive policy designed to deter families fleeing violence in their home countries from emigrating to the United States.

We cannot let this harmful policy change happen. To fight back, Children’s Rights has filed a friend of the court brief explaining why this rule is so harmful for immigrant children. Joined by a coalition of children’s advocacy organizations, the brief supports a motion filed in federal court to overturn any regulation that would permit authorities to hold children indefinitely or place them in facilities without state-granted licenses.

We argue that although the final rule set by the government claims to match the same rigorous state-licensing standards guaranteed by the Flores Agreement, in practice it pays only lip service to these protections. The new policy makes no provisions for thorough, on-site annual inspections, rapid response to reports of maltreatment and abuse, or the necessary enforcement mechanisms to correct violations that compromise the health and safety of children.

Under the new rule, the vast majority of family detention centers would be self-licensed by DHS, with oversight by DHS of standards that DHS has promulgated, and can change at will. Given the government’s history of mistreating children, this is asking the wolves to guard the sheep. At least seven children have died in, or shortly after having been released from, immigration custody in less than a year.

And as recently as July 2019, it was reported that children in one DHS facility had no access to medical care, no basic hygiene such as toothpaste or soap, and did not have adequate food or drinking water. These abuses foreshadow what the government’s own idea of standards for children would be when no state child welfare agency is watching.

Children’s Rights is proud to lend our voice in opposition to this latest salvo in the government’s relentless assault on immigrant children and their families. We have spent over 20 years fighting to reduce the institutionalization of children in our child welfare system because we know firsthand that it can lead to long-term, irreparable psychological harm. No time in detention is safe for children.

To support our advocacy for children, consider becoming a member of Children’s Rights and join our immigration interest group to get updates.