The Trump Administration Continues Its Attacks on Immigrant Families
Facing mounting public pressure, President Trump issued an executive order on June 20 that it would hold families together in immigrant detention as their cases are processed, effectively shifting the administration’s position from forced family separation to family incarceration.
Now the Trump administration must put a plan in place that ensures children separated from their parents are reunited as quickly as possible and that not one more child is separated from a parent at the border.
Republican leadership in Congress can also act decisively to pass clean legislation—not tied to any other immigration policies—to ensure that family separation never happens again. The Trump administration must not replace the national tragedy of family separation with a new crisis of families kept indefinitely in prison-like detention centers.
Reuniting children will be difficult
The president’s executive order raises many questions about where newly arriving families will stay and for how long. It also fails to outline a plan for how the 2,300 children already separated will be reunited with their parents.
For the thousands of children who remain separated from their families, reunification will likely be difficult given that parents are held in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as they await court hearings while their children are in facilities run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement at DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services). Often, these children are held in facilities thousands of miles apart from where their parents are being detained, making it difficult to establish communications and to work on their legal cases.
Family prisons pose a further threat to children’s well-being
The executive order requires parents and children to be incarcerated in DHS-run facilities while their cases are adjudicated. We are concerned about the conditions children and families will face in these detention centers - facilities that are not suitable for children. In 2014, a family facility DHS ran in Artesia, New Mexico, was shut down after legal groups shed light on the appalling conditions, a prison-like facility with rampant violations of due process. These family prisons could further traumatize children and families and pose a threat to child well-being.
Stories of poor conditions at family detention facilities are common, with visitors describing prison-like conditions with cement floors for sleeping, open toilets, lights on 24 hours a day, inadequate food and water, lack of access to health care, and freezing temperatures. The prison-like conditions in detention, including constant surveillance, can be confusing and intimidating for children. Children may feel unsafe in detention and may witness tensions between detainees and staff. This heightened tension in detention could be a trigger for children who have experienced past trauma and may be re-traumatizing.
Signs that the Trump administration is skirting child welfare protections
We are also concerned that the administration is trying to eliminate the minimum child welfare protections the Flores Settlement Agreement established in 1997 for the detention and treatment of immigrant children in the United States. The Trump administration appears to be attempting to eliminate these protections, seeking to hold families indefinitely – certainly longer than 20 days given the backlog in the immigration court system - until the parents can have their cases adjudicated.
Detention and family separation, even for short periods of time, have serious adverse consequences for the health and well-being of both parents and children. Detention can exacerbate existing mental health conditions for parents and compromise a parent’s ability – under stress - to respond to the needs of a child and to support a child’s healthy development. It can re-traumatize many of these families who have experienced trauma and are fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries only to be jailed – indefinitely - once here. It can lead to a feeling of helplessness for parents who may feel that they can no longer protect or provide for their children in detention conditions. Research suggests that the longer that families are in detention, the further the capacity of parents to care for their children is compromised.
Even brief periods in immigration detention can have detrimental effects on the mental and physical health of children. The stress of detention can harm a child’s developing brain and is associated with psychological distress and short-term symptoms including eating difficulties and somatic complaints, sleep problems, depression and anxiety, and long-term health consequences for children, including developmental delays, anxiety, depression, risk of substance abuse and other behavioral problems. Children can experience significant distress and toxic stress in detention conditions.
Possible congressional action
Last Thursday, a vote on the Securing America’s Future Act (the “Goodlatte bill”) failed, pushing a vote on the more moderate Border Security and Immigration Reform Act (the “Ryan bill”) "compromise" to this week. Neither bill outlaws family separation, dealing primarily with separate immigration issues. There are reports that House Republicans are now preparing a more narrow bill that would essentially overturn the Flores agreement and allow families to be detained together until their legal cases are resolved – which could take months or years. The bill is expected to have enough Republican votes to pass. The bill could also include other problematic provisions, including tightening the asylum process, making support from Democrats unlikely.
At the same time, Democrats have been trying to advance legislation to stop family separation. The Keep Families Together Act, introduced by Senator Feinstein (D-CA) aims to keep undocumented families together. There are also similar bills introduced in the House, including the Help Separated Families Act of 2018, which would make policy changes to keep children of detained or deported parents united with their families and the HELP Separated Children Act, intended to protect the safety and well-being of minor children who have been left alone and vulnerable after their parents have been arrested or detained by U.S. immigration authorities. Both introduced by Representative Royball-Allard (D-CA), these bills are unlikely to advance but raise the importance of keeping families together in the midst of immigration enforcement activities.