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Opinion Trump’s latest assault on migrant children definitely won’t fly

Immigrants line up in the dining hall at a holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Tex.
Immigrants line up in the dining hall at a holding center for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Tex. (Eric Gay/AP)

THE FIRST time the Trump administration attempted an end-run around a two-decades-old federal court decree that mandates humane treatment for immigrant children — and by extension, the practice of releasing asylum-seeking migrant families — it employed family separation. That didn’t go well.

Now, apparently hoping that gambit last year has receded in memory, along with the nation’s revulsion, the administration is pushing another workaround of the rules that ensure minors’ welfare. It would scrap the 1997 consent decree known as the Flores settlement, which established standards of care and a 20-day limit on detaining families with children in immigration jails. In place of those rules and the judicial oversight that enforced them, the administration proposes a new system that would allow the detention of families indefinitely while their cases are adjudicated.

That won’t fly. Where it concerns the treatment of immigrants generally and migrant children in particular, the administration’s credibility is nil. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, who oversees the Flores agreement, last year refused the government’s request to permit the long-term detention of families, on the grounds that it is harmful to children. She’s unlikely to allow it now; that would set the stage for what could be a drawn-out court battle.

Children growing up with toxic stress from abuse or neglect are more likely to have lifelong health problems. California's surgeon general says there is hope. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

The administration is right that the Flores agreement — and its legal outgrowth prohibiting the jailing of migrant minors for more than 20 days — provides an incentive for unauthorized immigration. Knowing they will be released pending their cases’ adjudication, Central American parents cross the border with their children and apply for asylum. Those rules, along with hardships in Central America, have impelled the recent surge in migration.

However, recall what produced the Flores rules in the first place: the abject failure of government — the Clinton administration at the time — to protect children’s welfare. The Flores court file is replete with hair-raising instances of abuse: cavity searches of boys and girls at the hands of officials; confinement in risky, jail-like facilities; and an absence of basic educational resources.

Now, administration officials say, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is capable of running full-service centers with “top-notch” food to accommodate migrant families with children — in line with regulations it writes itself. No more need to quickly release families or transfer unaccompanied children to state-licensed shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, as Flores requires.

Yet it’s anyone’s guess how long parents and children would languish in such centers. Nor does the Department of Homeland Security, under whose auspices ICE operates, plan to add to the 3,000 or so beds in three existing detention centers for migrant families. Officials say the centers would be monitored by independent outsiders to assure compliance with high standards. Given this administration’s track record, that’s meager assurance.

Even with the new rules likely tied up in court, officials hope they will deter a future surge of migrant families. The better means of deterrence is to add judges so that immigration courts can adjudicate asylum claims quickly, and to help migrant-producing countries in Central America surmount the problems driving people to leave in the first place. Those steps will take time, but they are more likely to work than the quick fix the administration seeks.

Read more:

Alyssa Rosenberg: Highlights magazine is right about what we owe migrant children — and U.S. children, too

Robert Gebelhoff: Flu season is coming. The Trump administration isn’t ready to protect migrant children from disease.

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Eugene Robinson: This is the reality of Trump’s America

Jennifer Rubin: Trump has no excuse for mistreatment of children