WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Trump administration is moving to end a long-standing federal agreement that limits how long immigrant children can be kept in detention. A court fight will almost certainly follow over the government’s desire to hold migrant families until their cases are decided.
The new regulations announced Wednesday would get rid of the Flores Settlement Agreement, which put a 20-day limit on detaining migrant families in federal custody.
The administration points to the increased number of undocumented migrant families crossing into the U.S. as a reason for the new regulations.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said this will help crackdown on child smuggling, since there have been instances of adults posing as parents of migrant children, so they could be released from detention sooner.
"Today, the government has issued a critical rule that will permit the Department of Homeland Security to appropriately hold families together and improve the integrity of the immigration system," said Acting Secretary McAleenan in a news release. "This rule allows the federal government to enforce immigration laws as passed by Congress and ensures that all children in U.S. government custody are treated with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability."
The rule takes effect in 60 days absent legal challenges.
Immigrant advocates decried the move and said prolonged detention would traumatize immigrant children.
“The government should not be jailing kids, and certainly shouldn’t be seeking to put more kids in jail for longer,” Madhuri Grewal, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
Peter Schey, a lawyer for the immigrant children in the Flores case and president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said if the regulations don’t match the settlement in that case, “they would be in immediate material breach, if not contempt of court.”
The Flores agreement governs more than just how long children can be held in detention, it sets standards of care for children who cross the border alone as well as with families. And lawyers in the case recently spoke out about what they said were deplorable, filthy conditions for children held at border facilities not meant to hold large groups of people for very long.
A report this week by the independent monitor overseeing claims of government noncompliance with Flores rules detailed the extreme overcrowding and poor conditions that immigrant youths faced in detention.
For example, a Border Patrol station in the El Paso area had a stated capacity for 105 children. On June 1, there were 676 at the Clint facility. Lawyers who visited in June described squalid conditions. Children cared for toddlers, the lawyers said, with inadequate food, water and sanitation.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)