By Valerie Ploumpis, National Policy Director
It seems sadly fitting that Equality California’s DC office submitted public comments on Halloween urging the Department of Homeland Security to abandon its efforts to seek authority to indefinitely immigrant children in prison-like conditions.
At issue is the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which limits the time that unaccompanied migrant minors can be kept in Federal custody — in facilities unlicensed by state authorities for the care of children — to 20 days. Under Flores protections, authorities are required to release these children as soon as possible to their parents, a legal guardian, another relative, or a vetted entity willing to take legal custody of the child.
At present, thousands of children and their parents are being kept in noisy, over-bright, impersonal and huge detention facilities in which numerous mainstream news sources have reported child weight loss, undiagnosed and untreated serious medical problems, insufficient and spoiled food and water, filthy facilities, strip searches of minors, harsh discipline being meted out to young children, and other unacceptable conditions. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks for children. These negative impact of detention on young people often have lifetime effects like lower school attendance, graduation rates and rates of income.
Equality California is also extremely concerned about the wellbeing of LGBTQ immigrants in custody; LGBTQ people account for 12 percent of reported victims of sexual abuse and assault in ICE detention annually, even though they comprise less than one percent of people of that population. Many studies have shown that LGBTQ people in immigration detention are at heightened risk of verbal and physical abuse, harassment, sexual violence — not only at the hands of fellow detainees, but also those in authority, such as the withholding of necessary medical care, abuse and solitary confinement.
The establishment of additional prison-like facilities to detain immigrant children is wrong on so many levels: already-traumatized minors belong with their families, and in school. The Department of Homeland Security has already demonstrated its inability to care for children and stripping them of even the basic protections afforded by the Flores Settlement Agreement would lead to greater harm. Thirdly, Trump’s incessant tweets and harsh treatment once they arrive in the United States do not serve as a deterrent to additional migrants—refugees and asylum-seekers are fleeing desperate conditions of violence and economic collapse in their home countries and will continue to flow northward. Finally, according to the Center of American Progress, the cost of building the estimated necessary number of detention beds range from a low of $2 billion to a high of $12.9 billion per year. These funds and DHS efforts should be applied to keeping families together and reuniting those still torn apart, substantially improving conditions for immigrant people who are already in detention, and providing protection for the most vulnerable – young children, LGBTQ people, and those living with HIV and AIDS.