(CN) – The Trump administration said Thursday it is abandoning a longstanding court settlement that limits how long immigrant children can be kept locked up, and it is proposing new regulations that would let the government detain families until their immigration cases are decided.
Homeland Security Department officials said that ending the so-called Flores agreement of 1997 will speed up the handling of immigration cases while also deterring people from illegally crossing the Southwest border.
The Flores agreement ensured that immigrant children could not be held in detention for more than 20 days. The limit has survived several court challenges since the White House began enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration earlier this year.
The administration’s proposed policy would allow immigrant minors and their families to be detained together — but indefinitely.
“This proposed rule will provide DHS with the option of keeping families who must or should be detained together at appropriately license [Family Residential Center]’s for the time needed to complete immigration proceedings,” a notice to be published in the Federal Register on Friday says.
The White House says it is not feasible to keep undocumented families together while also complying with the agreement, because Flores requires family residential centers to be state-licensed.
While some states already license so-called family residential centers, most have not developed such a licensing scheme.
The Department of Homeland Security says the state-licensing requirement is a significant barrier to quickly process immigrants who enter the country illegally.
The move angered immigrant rights advocates and is all but certain to trigger a court battle.
“It is sickening to see the United States government looking for ways to jail more children for longer,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “And it’s yet another example of the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigrants resulting in a policy incompatible with the most basic human values.”
In other immigration-related news, the parents of three refugee children filed a class-action lawsuit in Massachusetts on Thursday demanding the Trump administration establish a fund for mental health treatment for parents and children who were separated at the border.
The plaintiffs, who now live in Massachusetts after allegedly fleeing persecution in Guatemala, say their children were forcibly removed and detained upon entry to the United States, and were not provided adequate mental health resources while in custody.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen are the named defendants in the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, the children were subjected to punitive conditions and given little opportunity to contact their families while in custody. The families argue this separation and uncertainty can result in psychological harm that lasts long after reunification with parents.
For example, the complaint says, after reunification with their parents, a pair of unnamed siblings burst into tears when they spotted a police officer on the street, while another young boy continuously pretends to handcuff and vaccinate people around him.
“Defendants forcibly separated these young children from their parents without any
allegations of abuse, neglect, or parental unfitness, and without legal proceedings or hearings of
any kind. Defendants then detained these young, terrified children in facilities often thousands
of miles from their parents,” the complaint said.
Across the country in the Southern District of California, where a host of family separation lawsuits have been consolidated on U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw’s docket, a Thursday afternoon status update in the litigation revealed attorneys for the government and American Civil Liberties Union are at odds over the continued separation of some families.
Of the 416 children still separated from their parents and in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, “red flags” on parents’ files due to criminal convictions or the government’s contention they are unfit caretakers mean no reunification for 34 children.
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project attorney Lee Gelernt wrote in the status update to Sabraw his group and the government have reached on “impasse” on at least two cases and requested an expedited resolution from the court.
One case involves a four-year-old child who separated from his mother, who has a warrant in her home country for being a suspected gang member. An immigration judge found the warrant was not sufficient evidence she was a danger to her community, but the government has refused to reunite the family based on the alleged criminal history, according to Gelernt.
The second case involves a father denied reunification with his two-year-old son, initially due to questions of parentage. More recently the government denied reunification due to a 2010 guilty plea in an assault case.
Gelernt requested an expedited briefing schedule to resolve whether the families can be reunited, citing “the youth of the children involved.”
A status conference in the case is scheduled for Friday afternoon.
Courthouse News reporter Bianca Bruno contributed to this report from San Diego.
The Associated Press also contributed to this report.