Migrant children will suffer most under new detention rule, says bishop

Asylum-seekers in Hidalgo, Texas, turn themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol officers Aug. 23, 2019. (Credit: Loren Elliott/Reuters via CNS.)

The chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Migration Committee said he sees “heartbreaking consequences for immigrant children” in a final rule issued by the Trump administration that allows the federal government to hold immigrant children in family detention indefinitely.

The new rule was issued jointly by the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services that will end a long-standing legal agreement put in place in 1997– known as the Flores Settlement Agreement — to ensure the safety and care of children in immigration detention settings.

Vulnerable group

Pope Francis has deemed immigrant children “the most vulnerable group among migrants,” and they will be most affected by this new rule, said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration.

“(This) is an attempt by the administration to circumvent existing obligations and undermine critical protections for these children,” the bishop said in a statement. “This rule will jeopardize the well-being and humane treatment of immigrant children in federal custody and will result in children suffering long-lasting consequences of being held for prolonged periods in family detention.”

“We oppose this rule that we believe is unlawful and inhumane. Countless children will be harmed by this new rule and this is simply not acceptable,” he said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also opposed this rule when it was initially proposed by DHS and HHS by submitting comments in 2018, detailing concerns with the rule and urging it be rescinded. The government received more than 98,000 comments in response to the proposed rule-making.

Unlawful and immoral

The Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. said it likewise submitted comments, calling the proposed rule “unlawful and immoral” as it negates “the child-friendly provisions in the Flores agreement.”

Anna Gallagher, CLINIC’s executive director, said: “This rule would destroy long-term child protection standards created by our government and the courts. There is no justification to keep families and children in immigration jails longer. Separation of children from their parents is inherently wrong. The same is true for keeping children in detention.”

Children as pawns

“Once again, the Trump administration is using children as pawns in its attack on immigrants,” said Lawrence E. Couch, Director of the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan of the Department of Homeland Security said the new guidelines would help the government maintain the “integrity of the immigration system.”

Currently, there are only three family immigration detention facilities in the U.S., one in Karnes City, Texas, one in Dilley, Texas, and another in Leesport, Pennsylvania, which together have 3,335 beds, according to the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services.

The Flores Settlement Agreement has protected children in immigration custody by guaranteeing them the least restrictive setting. Courts have interpreted this rule to limit family detention to a maximum of 20 days in facilities that are not state licensed to provide child care. Opponents of the Trump administration’s rule say it will allow the government to keep families in detention indefinitely.