Editorial: Trump’s new plan to incarcerate migrant families isn’t just cruel, it’s unjustifiable

Immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who entered the country illegally prepare to board a bus in San Antonio after they were released from a family detention center in Texas.
Immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who entered the country illegally prepare to board a bus in San Antonio after they were released from a family detention center in Texas.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

The Trump administration announced its plan Wednesday for a network of detention centers to hold migrant families for potentially as long as it takes to process their applications for asylum. This is the same government, of course, that faces lawsuits and harsh internal criticism over how poorly it has managed adult detention centers — let’s be honest and call them prisons — and where, among other allegations, they left a man with a parasite in his brain linger for a year without medical attention. And it thinks it can build a better prison for families?

Let’s be clear from the outset: It is harmful to children to incarcerate them with or without their parents and siblings. In fact, a 2016 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers concluded that “detention is generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families — and that detention or the separation of families for purposes of immigration enforcement or management … is never in the best interest of children.” The panel, which included health and legal experts, said families should be detained only if there is a legitimate fear of flight or public safety, and even then for as short a period as possible. “Every effort should be made to place families in community-based case-management programs that offer medical, mental health, legal, social, and other services and supports, so that families may live together within a community.”

So, of course, the Trump administration is doing the opposite in a baldfaced attempt to use the imprisonment of people who are primarily asylum-seekers to scare others who might follow into staying home or seeking asylum in another country. At a minimum, that is contrary to the spirit of federal immigration laws and international agreements establishing asylum — and to any common notion of basic human decency.

The problem the administration is trying to solve is what it constantly refers to as a “loophole” that prevents DHS from detaining families. It is no such thing.

During the Clinton administration, child migrant advocates and the government reached a court settlement, known as the Flores agreement, to set the conditions under which migrant children could be detained. The agreement and later interpretations limit detentions to the least restrictive conditions possible and, in most cases, for no longer than 20 days before children must be released to the custody of a parent or guardian or transferred to licensed care facilities in non-prisonlike settings (which are few and far between). U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles ruled four years ago that the Flores agreement, which involved unaccompanied minors, applies to families with minor children too, setting the stage for one of the worst cruelties of the Trump administration: the practice of charging border-crossing parents with misdemeanors and and sending them to jail where their children couldn’t follow, so they were separated. Some have yet to be reunited.

So now the solution, in the eyes of the administration, is to create a regimen of rules and inspections for its own new family detention centers. That, the government argues, satisfies the Flores agreement and would allow it to keep the families incarcerated, together, for as long as it takes to process their immigration cases. That could take years. Pediatricians and psychiatrists argue that doing so could damage the mental and physical health of the children. Peter Schey, one of the migrant rights attorneys who won the original Flores agreement, said the new rules “show President Trump’s decision to politicize the detention of migrant children as part of his re-election campaign and his callous indifference to their safety and well-being.”

We don’t see any grounds to argue otherwise. The cynicism and manipulation behind so much of this administration’s approach to immigration and border security seep through this latest maneuver. People fleeing grinding poverty, violent crime, corrupt governments and, in some cases, local cultures that allow violent abuse of women should not be thrown in jail for daring to come to the U.S. border and, using U.S. laws, asking for help.

No, we shouldn’t have open borders. No, we shouldn’t grant asylum to every person who asks for it. But we also shouldn’t imprison them while we sort out the eligible from the ineligible. The solution to an immigration court system so overwhelmed that it takes months or years to process cases isn’t to deprive people of their liberty, but to expand the system itself to handle the job it has been given.