The Trump administration said Wednesday it will advance new rules that would allow border agents to detain migrant families with children for longer periods of time than the 20 days now allowed by a Clinton-era agreement.
The move would modify the standards of care for unaccompanied children established by the 1997 Flores Agreement, which limits detention to 20 days. After that period, immigrant children and adults are released and a court date is set. Administration officials said the 20-day limit was the result of a 2015 court ruling that clarified the terms of the Flores settlement, which was introduced under former President Bill Clinton.
The Trump administration has argued the deal encourages migrants to cross the border with children, knowing they won’t be held for longer than 20 days.
The new rule, which “terminates” the Flores agreement, would keep families in detention until their immigration proceedings are complete — deterring them, the administration says, from making the dangerous journey from Central America to the U.S. border.
“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,” Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a statement.
Officials said the rule change, which takes effect in 60 days, will not lead to indefinite lengths of detention, as some critics fear.
Peter Schey, an attorney representing thousands of unaccompanied migrant children, said the administration is politicizing the treatment of children.
“These regulations do not implement the [Flores] settlement,” Schey said. “In fact, it abrogates the settlements. And so I think their efforts will be futile.”
The rule comes amid reports of maltreatment at border detention camps, which say immigrants are not being provided adequate care while in U.S. custody — a notion Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar disputed Wednesday.
“The Department of Health and Human Services … provides quality and compassionate care for unaccompanied alien children who are referred to our custody,” he said. “In this rule, we are implementing the relevant and substantive portions of the Flores Settlement Agreement pertaining to standards for the temporary care, placement, and release of those minors.
“As before, HHS will continue to protect the safety and dignity of unaccompanied alien children in our custody as we seek to place them with a parent, relative, or other suitable sponsor.”
Border officials said they stopped 144,000 migrants at the border in May, but official figures show illegal crossings have declined since Mexico agreed to a deal in which it uses its security forces to stop refugees before they reach the U.S. border.
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