By Jonathan Blitzer
In 1985, two Salvadoran children, ages twelve and fifteen, were held in a squalid, overcrowded room in a rundown motel in Pasadena, California. For weeks, the government denied them food and kept them from seeing doctors or family members. The circumstances, one of the girls later told the Times, were “too painful to remember, to discuss.” A team of lawyers who went on to represent them and two other girls sued the government, in a case that dragged on for more than a decade, well after the initial plaintiffs were released. By 1997, two Presidential Administrations later, the government decided to settle. Doris Meissner, who was then the head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said, “If there are real issues surrounding the detention of minors, and the government is being held responsible for poor conditions, why are we litigating in favor of what we are doing wrong?”
For the past twenty-two years, the terms of this legal settlement, known as the Flores Agreement, have been a central tenet of U.S. immigration policy. When dealing with children, the most vulnerable immigrants to enter federal custody, the government must provide certain, baseline protections, including access to food and medical care; it must also promise to detain them for the shortest possible amount of time, in the “least restrictive” settings.
On Wednesday, the Trump Administration announced a sweeping new set of regulations to gut the Flores Agreement. “It is a wholesale attack on kids in custody,” Jennifer Podkul, the policy director of Kids in Need of Defense (kind), told me. The Administration’s immediate target is an outgrowth of the agreement, shored up by a judge a few years ago, which prevents children from being held in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security for more than twenty days. The agreement applies not just to children who came to the U.S. alone but also to those who crossed the border with their parents. This has meant, in effect, that thousands of asylum-seeking families have been released from detention while their cases have moved through the immigration courts. Now, according to Kevin McAleenan, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, the government will detain families together for as long as it takes to resolve their immigration claims. For tens of thousands of families, that could easily amount to months in custody—an especially alarming prospect considering that another critical component of Flores, a requirement that the government keep children in licensed facilities overseen by independent monitors, would also fall away under the Administration’s plan.
In his announcement on Wednesday, McAleenan claimed that “all children in U.S. government custody” would be “treated with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability.” But his reassurances sound especially hollow at the present moment. In the past year and a half, seven children have died in immigration custody, and there have been widespread complaints about the conditions in which children are being held. Earlier this summer, at a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, two hundred and fifty infants, children, and teen-agers spent weeks without adequate food and water, and were denied soap and toothbrushes; despite lice and flu outbreaks, authorities skimped on providing medical care. “The Flores monitors are the reason we knew about what was happening at Clint,” Podkul said.
On Monday, a lawyer known as a “special master,” who was appointed last year to investigate potential violations of Flores in facilities run by D.H.S. and the Department of Health and Human Services, filed a report with further details. In Customs and Border Protection facilities, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, “allegations of severe overcrowding and excessive length of custody, lack of appropriate food for minors, inability of detainees to sleep, ambient temperatures outside a reasonably comfortable range, and lack of access to medical treatment remain unresolved,” the special master wrote. At H.H.S. shelters across the country, the average time that children spent in government custody, between January of 2018 and May of 2019, was sixty-seven days. Nearly three thousand children who turned eighteen while in detention were transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement because they “aged out” and were no longer treated as minors.
The Trump Administration has, from the start, attacked Flores as a “loophole” that immigrant families have continually sought to exploit; closing it was part of a broader mission to deter other families from coming to the U.S. to seek asylum in the first place. In August, 2017, a group of Administration officials met at D.H.S. headquarters, in Washington, to devise a series of policies to restrict the number of asylum seekers entering the country. Among the proposals was separating families at the border and a move to end the Flores agreement. Attendees were also tasked with writing ten separate memos with blueprints for how the Administration could implement each policy goal. “I recall being stumped about what we could do by decree or executive action to get around Flores,” one former official, who was present at the meeting, told me. “It was one of the memos that floundered,” the former official added, because of its “questionable legality.”
The White House decided to work around Flores instead. When the Trump Administration began separating families at the border, in the summer of 2017, part of its rationalization was that, by criminally charging parents for entering the country illegally, the government could detain the adults, and their children would be treated as unaccompanied minors and transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services. The government could thus hold the parents indefinitely and penalize the entire family, as the children were kept in conditions that were notionally consistent with the terms of Flores. By late June, 2018, amid a national outcry, Trump promised to stop separating families at the border. But, in the same breath, he announced that the Administration would hold families together instead. Almost immediately, a federal judge in California named Dolly Gee, who is in charge of supervising the government’s compliance with Flores, blocked the Administration. There was a clear precedent for her decision, which the Trump Administration willfully ignored: in 2015, when President Obama responded to a sudden spike in Central American families seeking asylum by trying to detain families in ice facilities, Gee blocked him, too.
In September, 2018, the Trump Administration released a two-hundred-page document outlining proposed regulations that would end Flores altogether. Immigration advocates immediately appealed to Gee, in California, who took the challenge under advisement but withheld final judgment until after the Administration’s regulations were entered in the federal register, which is slated for Friday. “The President is telling [D.H.S.] they must terminate the settlement,” Peter Schey, one of the lead attorneys in the initial Flores class-action suit, told the Washington Post at the time. “They tried it in court, and now they’re trying it through regulations. But they’re in a bind, because the only way the regulations will be valid is if they’re consistent with the settlement, and if they’re consistent with the settlement then they won’t achieve the changes the President has demanded.” Now the Flores plaintiffs will have a week to amend their suit. Jennifer Nagda, an attorney at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, told me, “We’ll have to do a line-by-line comparison between the new regulations and the proposed version from last September to decide how to direct our energy in the next seven days.”
The broader consequences of the Administration’s rollback could extend well beyond detention conditions. When minors travel to the U.S. alone, for instance, they’re categorized as unaccompanied, a designation that affords them additional rights such as the ability to apply for asylum through an asylum officer, as opposed to a judge in the more adversarial setting of an immigration court. “This isn’t just about being detained,” Podkul said. “It’s about the next two to three years an immigrant child spends going through the judicial system.” Earlier this summer, an official at H.H.S.—who at the time suspected that the President’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, was behind an unprecedented push to reclassify unaccompanied children—told me, “The expectation is that the Administration will change the policy regarding the definition of an unaccompanied child. . . . A child arriving at the border alone will not be declared unaccompanied if they have a parent ‘available’ in the U.S. to care for them. That means the child will be subject to expedited removal.” The idea, the official added, was to skirt Congress by instituting the change in the form of a regulation, while creating yet another pretext for assailing lawmakers for their failure to take some radical action of their own. And that is exactly what has happened: the regulations announced this week will further whittle away the legal rights of immigrant children. “The change will end up in court immediately,” the official had told me. But the Administration wanted to send a message anyway.
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