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No place in U.S. for a tent city for children

October 4, 2018

Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, Ariz., was renowned for an animus toward undocumented immigrants that spilled over into so many repercussions for native-born Latinos that a federal court held him in criminal contempt when he didn’t stop. President Donald Trump, praising the lawman, pardoned him.

One of Arpaio’s more “creative” innovations was a “tent city” for those he was charged with sheltering.

Guess what the federal government has erected for unaccompanied immigrant minors in Tornillo, near El Paso? Yes, a tent city.

For different reasons, we have no reservation observing what we believed for Arpaio’s tent city — the general inhumanity. Children are spirited out of regulated shelters all over the country with little notice and put into tents in the desert that are without state regulation. This can’t help but signal diminished chances for reunification with parents, relatives or others who may care for them in more humane conditions. In this new tent city, there is no schooling, just workbooks that they are under no obligation to complete.

There are basic federal Health and Human Services regulations, but why do they not include schooling and other state child and welfare protections? It’s because this is deemed an “emergency” shelter.

The federal government defends the nighttime transfers, done with little notice, as necessary to prevent panic and escape attempts. And they also defend this because other shelters are at or near capacity. But these are circumstances entirely of the Trump administration’s making.

It’s self-evident why youngsters, being moved to a more remote locale, might panic when what amounts to too-lengthy detentions threaten to become lengthier.

The number of unaccompanied minors has not markedly increased in the past two years, but what has changed is the administration’s policies, what it calls zero tolerance. This swelled the population at first because children were separated from their asylum-seeking parents at the border. Now, for minors who crossed without parents or relatives — the majority of the children currently detained — it’s because they are not being reunited as much as before with those who might care for them. And these potential caregivers are staying away out of fear that authorities will use the data given, including fingerprints, as tools to deport them. The administration’s harsh rhetoric on immigration has also naturally sown such fears.

There are about 13,000 unaccompanied minors in custody — about 1,600 shipped to Tornillo — and detention periods have nearly doubled over the past year.

The administration says, absent comprehensive immigration reform, its hands are tied. We agree with that need but note that draconian treatment of immigrants until that day happens only exacerbates matters.

One requirement in the usual shelters was that the children be provided some modicum of legal representation to pursue their claims, though critics say not enough representation. But this lack of representation will likely worsen in this “emergency” shelter.

Also, if this isn’t already in the works, immigrant advocates, state regulators and lawmakers should be given free rein to inspect the facilities to determine if they are safe.

The longer these minors are separated from adults who care for them, the more pernicious the emotional and psychological damage.

The best solution would be for speedier release for these children, state-regulated shelters, no tent city, and an end to the administration’s zero tolerance and its all-too-predictable fallout.

There is absolutely no need to mimic Arpaio when it comes to the type of housing for those the federal government is responsible for sheltering. These are children, not inmates.

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