The federal government’s attempts to circumvent a court settlement governing the treatment of immigrant children in detention would, if successful, serve two purposes for the administration.
It would give cover because — with hundreds of children still in detention and not reunited with their parents — the administration has proven itself incompetent in reuniting all the children separated from parents as part of its zero-tolerance policies in a timely and humane manner. And it would allow the administration to continue to use detained children as pawns to punish asylum seekers from coming here in the first place.
The changes would end key portions of the Flores Settlement, a consent decree that has determined how the federal government has treated migrant children since 1997. That agreement has said that children must be held in the least restrictive environments as possible and that they not be held longer than 20 days. The changes would also limit to which relatives children are released.
The administration seeks a change that will allow it to hold children — and their parents — until their cases have been adjudicated. And this means the need for more detention facilities for unaccompanied children and for families.
The administration says its proposed changes — which must undergo a 60-day public comment period — will retain portions of the settlement that govern how humanely the children are treated. But it fails to recognize that detention — with or without parents — is itself a punitive measure with children whose brains are still forming. The aim is really to deter adults who come with their children.
There is no doubt that the administration is empowered to change the rules, but how and why will surely land the federal government back in court. Perhaps even into the Supreme Court.
Our fear is that, meanwhile, the administration will indefinitely detain children — with or without parents — to send a message to asylum seekers, who have every right to walk up to the U.S. border and ask for refuge. The administration says it fears that released families and children will not return for adjudication, but there are other means to ensure return.
The administration, after an outcry, had to pull back from its policy of outright separation of children from parents. We’d prefer it now spend its time adhering to asylum policies and reuniting children still separated from parents.
This regimen of punishment will not work — and must stop.