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Trump wants to detain children and families indefinitely – what you need to know and how you can stop it

News & Commentary  |  By Carly Goodman, Sep 14, 2018

Iowans took part in a Jericho Walk around the Federal Building in Des Moines in support of immigrants and in opposition to the unjust immigration system.

Photo: AFSC / Jon Krieg

The Trump administration is working quietly on a new plan to detain families and immigrant children indefinitely. A new proposed regulation would replace a court agreement called the Flores settlement that has offered limited protection to immigrant children in custody -- and it's critical that we do all that we can to stop it.

In recent months, millions of people across the country were outraged as the administration ripped children from their parents’ arms, expanded immigrant detention, and sped up deportations. Communities responded with protests, support for immigrant families, and calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and create policies that respect the dignity and rights of all people. The public outcry surprised the administration, which apparently assumed that no one would care about the fates of immigrant children and families.

That’s why it’s important to keep the pressure up. When we show that we care, we get results: reunited families and some limits on Trump’s cruelty – although today hundreds of families remain separated. 

Now, as The New York Times reports, the detention of immigrant children has reached the highest level ever – and the Trump administration is working to detain even more families and immigrant children indefinitely. Here’s what you need to know – and what you can do about it.

What is the Flores settlement agreement?

Since 1997, the Flores settlement agreement has limited the amount of time the government can detain children (generally no more than 20 days) and limited the detention of children and families to facilities with certain licensing and standards. 

The case has a 30-year history dating back to the 1980s when the U.S government was detaining unaccompanied children in substandard conditions and refusing to release them to close relatives. AFSC submitted an amicus brief in the case in 1990, along with other religious and social services groups, asserting that the “cost of detention both to children and to society is incalculable.” In 1997 the government finally settled with plaintiffs, creating the Flores settlement agreement, setting standards for care of unaccompanied children in federal custody. 

The agreement is far from perfect and the government has repeatedly failed to comply with its terms. After 9/11, the Bush administration established family detention centers, which resulted in new litigation and a new settlement setting standards of care for children in family detention. The Obama administration later expanded the detention of unaccompanied minors and tried to use family detention to deter asylum seekers. 

There is no humane way to detain children and families, and in 2015 a judge ruled that Flores applies to children whether they arrive with or without their parents in the United States. 

What does the government want to do? 

The regulation proposed by the government would:

  • Make it easier for the government to detain children with their families – indefinitely;
  • Allow the government to hold families in facilities that haven’t been licensed by state or local governments;
  • Lower standards of care in facilities during broad “emergencies” that could deny families basic needs; and 
  • Make it easier for young people to lose certain legal protections.

These changes would help the Trump administration construct a system of immigrant family internment that could last forever. 

What can you do to stop this?

When a federal agency writes a new regulation, it allows the public to submit comments and provide input. The administration’s proposed regulation that would supersede the Flores settlement agreement has been posted online. You can read more about it here.  Members of the public are invited to comment on the regulation between now and November 6, 2018 when the 60-day comment period closes.

1. Submit a public comment.

To have your voice heard, click here. Make sure you are commenting on the right regulation – it is titled “The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau (ICEB) Proposed Rule: Apprehension, Processing, Care, and Custody of Alien Minors and Unaccompanied Alien Children” and can be found by searching for “ICEB-2018-0002-0001”. 

2. Write from your own values and experiences.

The agencies might take your comments less seriously if they believe you are using a form letter. Here are some points to consider:

  • Immigrant families belong together and not in jail – and this regulation undermines that principle.
  • Keeping children in detention causes lasting trauma – the costs to children, families, and our communities is incalculable. The American Association of Pediatrics has stated that no child should be held in a detention center or separated from their parents.
  • The proposed regulation is inconsistent with the Flores settlement agreement, which compels the government to hold immigrant children in the least restrictive setting possible and decide their cases quickly. 
  • There is no humane family detention. The facilities that have been used to detain families have been rife with psychological and physical abuse. There is a reason there is no licensing scheme for family detention centers at the state and local levels: There should be no such thing as family detention centers. Families and children should not be in cages.
  • Indefinite detention of immigrant families is expensive, impractical, violates human rights, fosters abuse and mistreatment, and is unnecessary. There are proven alternatives to detention that would not inflict severe trauma on children and families. The proposed regulation will do nothing to change the desperate situations asylum seekers are fleeing in their home countries and instead punish them for seeking haven here.
  • Protecting basic human rights is not a loophole. We should not make it easier for the Trump administration to construct a system of indefinite family detention. Treating immigrants as a threat is unnecessary, cruel, and does nothing to make us safer. Our policies should instead treat all people with dignity and respect.

3. Tell Congress to defund immigration detention, including family detention.

Stopping Trump’s plan to expand family detention is imperative. But it’s also important to defund the system of immigration detention that we already have. You can take action here to contact your senators and representative, and tell them to stop using our taxpayer dollars for ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  And sign our petition urging Congress to take immediate steps to demilitarize immigration enforcement and abolish ICE . 

Trump’s plan to detain immigrant families indefinitely echoes the darkest events in history. And things will get worse if plans like this are allowed to flourish through bureaucratic rulemaking and public indifference. Speak out now – and tell the administration that children do not belong in cages and families belong together.  

About the Author

Carly Goodman is a historian and the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AFSC.