The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would allow authorities to lock up the children of undocumented immigrants indefinitely.
The legislation, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, calls for rescinding a rule that limits the jailing of migrant kids to 20 days. The regulation was part of a 1997 settlement agreement in the Flores v. Reno case.
The Trump administration has violated the rule by separating children from their parents and imprisoning them in different facilities for much longer than 20 days. Though the separations reportedly are no longer happening, hundreds of kids are still waiting to be reunited with their families.
Johnson, who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, ironically calls his legislation the “Families Act.” It provides for the construction of more jails to house immigrant families. Though the measure stipulates that children and their parents are to be held together in the same prisons, the National Immigrant Justice Center is worried that family separations could still occur in cases involving adults who have committed crimes.
“It's frustrating to see Republicans in the Senate aiding and abetting the Trump administration’s cruel and inhumane policies that imprison innocent children, families fleeing violence, and kids coming to this country alone hoping for a better life,” said Sandra Cordero, who heads the Families Belong Together Coalition Campaign.
The president wants to lock up everyone caught crossing the border illegally, a reversal of the Obama administration's policy of releasing immigrants pending court hearings. Because of the large number of cases, it can take months for a judge to consider an application for asylum. If Johnson's bill becomes law, more migrants will have to spend that time behind bars.
The senator, during a speech at a committee hearing, argued that the previous administration's policy was based on a federal court's “reinterpretation” of the Flores settlement. He lamented that officials have only “bad” options for dealing with undocumented foreigners who enter the country from Mexico. Many of the desperate immigrants are escaping poverty and violence in their homelands, which many believe should qualify them for refugee status.
Truthout noted that prisons for migrant families are already being built, as a result of an executive order Trump signed in June. The construction projects are benefiting private prison companies that made large contributions to Trump's 2016 campaign, according to Mother Jones magazine.
The National Immigrant Justice Center alleges that jails for immigrants are “cruel and mismanaged.” The organization reported that at least 15 people have died in the facilities, often due to a lack of medical attention, since Trump became president. One of the victims was Mariee Juarez, a toddler who recently lost her life at a family-detention center in Arizona. The child's family said she died of medical neglect.
Johnson's bill would allow the detention of adults and children regardless of their health conditions or disabilities. The measure “seeks to imprison children and their families indefinitely in facilities with stomach-turning records of abuse,” Cordero said.
The Immigrant Justice Center's Heidi Altman added: “The United States already holds the shameful distinction of being ranked among the worst nations in treatment of migrant children, largely due to the Department of Homeland Security's detention of children in immigration jails. Senator Johnson's legislation would embrace rather than mitigate these systemic abuses.”
A coalition of health and human rights groups is urging Congress to reject the measure. In a letter to lawmakers, the organizations advocated additional funding of case management for foreigners seeking asylum, which would cost less than prisons.
Last year, a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that locking up kids causes trauma and psychological issues that can last a lifetime, even when families are kept together. The academy documented instances of children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, behavioral issues and learning problems.
The Intercept reported that in April, two months before Trump issued his executive order, the Homeland Security Department proposed filing criminal charges against every illegal border crosser because it would “have the greatest impact on current flows.” The statement, which appeared in a government memo, ignored the fact that illegal immigration has declined in recent years.
The department released the memo to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request by Open the Government and Project on Government Oversight. The organizations wrote that the document did “not discuss any plan for reuniting separated families, or the harmful effects of separation on children.” They pointed out that the memo also failed to “reflect any input from the government agencies who would be responsible for caring for the separated children.”
Emily Creighton of the American Immigration Council declared: “This is part of a story to be told here about the humanitarian travesty. I think the American public deserves to know what our government has been thinking in terms of how to carry out these extremely devastating policies.”