Migrant families to face longer detention under new Trump rule; faith groups concerned

A group of evangelical pastors pray with a group of 22 migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and Salvador underneath the Paso Del Norte Bridge where they are being held for processing in El Paso, Texas, on March 28, 2019. | Christ Chavez/Getty Images

Christian advocacy groups are speaking out after the Trump administration announced a new regulation Wednesday that would allow for undocumented migrant children to be detained without limit in immigration detention facilities. 

The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services unveiled the new rule that opens the door for the Trump administration to detain migrant families who cross the U.S. southern border indefinitely.

The new rule replaces a decades-old court agreement called the Flores Settlement, under which a 20-day limit on the detention of migrant children was set in 2015. The policy comes as the Trump administration is enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy for any migrant caught crossing the southern border. 

In a news release, the administration stated that the new rule will allow the “DHS and HHS to respond to significant statutory and operational changes” that have happened since the Flores Settlement was put in place in 1997. Such changes include increases in the number of unaccompanied children and family units crossing the southern border.

“Large numbers of alien families are entering illegally across the southern border, hoping that they will be released into the interior rather than detained during their removal proceedings,” the press release reads. “Promulgating this rule and seeking termination of the [Flores Settlement] are important steps towards an immigration system that is humane and operates consistently with the intent of Congress.”

Acting DHS Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan said in a statement that the new rule will permit the DHS to “appropriately hold families together and improve the integrity of the immigration system.”

"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,” he said. 

According to the press release, that the new policy will allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to maintain family unity by “holding families with children in licensed facilities or facilities that meet ICE's family residential standards, as evaluated by a third-party entity engaged by ICE.” 

As PBS notes, there are only three family detention centers in operation in the U.S. However, a DHS spokesperson told the Daily Caller that the administration will create a “licensing regime” for family residential centers. 

The Trump administration received much criticism from Democrats and the mainstream media last year for separating many migrant children from their parents who were detained for illegal entry. Since children could not be held for any longer than 20 days, critics called on the Trump administration to release immigrant families together until their cases could be heard. 

However, the Trump administration feared that releasing families would result in most not showing up for their court hearings. 

Last year, the Trump administration asked a court to suspend the Flores Settlement but the request was rejected. As PBS notes, the Obama administration also sought to extend the detention of immigrant children. However, the Obama-era request was also rejected in 2015. 

In a news conference, McAleenan said the new rule “will restore integrity to our immigration system and eliminate major pull factor fueling the crisis.” 

The new policy still must be approved by a judge who is overseeing the settlement in Flores v. Reno settlement, according to CNN

“The FSA always contained provisions for its implementation in regulations and its termination,” the HHS press release explains. 

“[O]riginally, it was to remain in effect no more than five years; and then, in 2001, the parties agreed it would terminate after a final rulemaking. Beginning in 2005, prior administrations repeatedly announced plans for a rule. No prior administration, however, issued a final rule. With this achievement now complete, the FSA will terminate by its own terms, and the Trump Administration will continue to work for a better immigration system.”

Faith-based immigrant advocacy groups were quick to denounce the new proposal. 

Matthew Soerens, the director of church mobilization with the evangelical refugee resettlement agency World Relief, said in a Twitter thread that the new rule will allow the government to detain immigrant children until their final court hearing, which could take months or even years. 

“Why is this problematic? From a Christians perspective & all the science on children's well-being, we fundamentally do not believe kids should be detained for long periods of time,” Soerens tweeted. “Even if they have TV or are let out to play soccer occasionally. Kids don't belong in institutions.”

Soerens added that the Flores Settlement does not give “any family that shows up with a kid” a “free pass” to stay in the U.S.

“Of course not. They're released, usually to an extended family member or friend already in the U.S. who can help them (instead of a taxpayer-funded institution), pending their court hearing,” Soerens said, adding that 80 percent of all immigrant families released show up for court hearings. 

“Part of that high compliance rate is a lot of these families genuinely are trying to do the right thing and follow our complicated & confusing systems for requesting asylum under U.S. law (most of them, notably, are Christians, many of the deeply committed evangelical Christians).”

Last year, a number of groups offered alternatives to family detention, such as a case management program promoted by Bethany Christian Services. The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also called for the return of the Family Case Management Program that was run during the final year of the Obama administration. 

Such a program enabled humanitarian groups to assist the government in organizing efforts to supervise asylum-seeking families while they wait for their final court hearings. 

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that from October through July of this year,  "More than 432,000 members of family units have been taken into custody ... a 456 percent increase over the same period the year before, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection." 

The Rev. John L. McCullough, president of the refugee resettlement agency Church World Service, also blasted the new rule. CWS is a ministry of 37 Christian denominations.

“The same administration that has half a dozen child deaths on its hands should not be allowed to detain children indefinitely or otherwise erode minimum standards of care. All children and families deserve to live together in safety,” McCullough argued. 

“This administration has already done irreparable harm to thousands of children and families who came to our nation seeking protection. Children and families running for their lives should never be incarcerated, nor should a child be needlessly separated from their parent. As people of faith and conscience, we demand that Congress hold the administration accountable to prioritizing child welfare, rather than separating children from their parents or detaining children or families.”

Krish O’Mara, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in a statement that ending Flores Settlement protections will “allow babies and children to be detained in jail-like conditions.”

“This rule is like putting the wolf in charge of the sheep,” O’Mara claimed.  

Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, a former Baptist pastor, said in a statement that the new rule corrects the “court’s misguided interpretation of the Flores settlement.” 

“Publication of this rule will fulfill the terms of the Flores agreement as the settlement intended and closes a loophole that has fueled illegal immigration at the expense of young boys and girls,” Collins explained. "Both President Trump and former President Obama have worked to correct the damage done by the faulty 2015 Flores decision, and the rule reflects a policy solution that people across the political spectrum can welcome as compassionate, fair and long overdue.” 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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