Tuesday’s Senate Homeland Security hearing on family detention was tense, as Trump administration officials struggled to explain the consequences of indefinite detention — including health risks for children.
“We are talking about the indefinite detention of children,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) to officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ).
One DHS official attempted to push back, saying “there is no indefinite detention of children,” but Hassan quickly interjected.
“Right now there isn’t because of Flores,” she said, referring to the 1997 settlement, which prevents the government from detaining undocumented children for long periods of time.
The federal government’s top law enforcement agencies want to indefinitely detain migrant families who enter the U.S. without legal status while those families wait for a judge to review their full immigration cases. They argue detention as compared to ankle bracelets, for example, leads to more removals and they want to deter migration — but haven’t thought through all the consequences. Indeed, top officials hadn’t even studied all the literature on associated health risks for children, which became evident during Tuesday’s hearing.
Among other things, the 1997 court agreement limited the amount of time the federal government could detain children who arrive to the U.S. with their parents, which generally means for no more than 20 days. But DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agencies which oversee detention centers for parents and children, issued regulations that would terminate these extra legal protections for migrant families. (These proposed regulations have not been finalized and will certainly be challenged in court.)
A reminder as the hearing ends: Flores protects children, is grounded in child welfare principles, & ensures court oversight. This admin is desperately trying to overturn it to be able to lock up more children, for longer periods of time, & make it even harder to seek protection
— Katharina Obser (@Kat_Obser) September 18, 2018
Executive Associate Director for ICE Matthew Albence and Acting Deputy Commissioner for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Robert Perez admitted they hadn’t seen statements from their own colleagues at DHS, warning that indefinite detention, like family separation, could traumatize children. Two physicians who act as DHS’s “subject-matter experts” warned in a letter to the Senate’s Whistleblower Protection Caucus that expanding family detention “poses a high risk of harm to children and their families” — but neither Perez nor Albence read it.
Officials were clearly unconcerned with the health ramifications of indefinite family detention as they hadn’t come prepared to talk about any of the literature. This became evident during the course of the hearing:
“How long is too long, do you think, to detain a child in a detention facility?” asked Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).
“I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question,” said Albence.
“Has your agency looked into that and thought about it and reviewed the literature associated with that?” said Peters.
“I don’t know. I could find out and get back,” replied Albence.
Officials with CBP and the DOJ responded similarly.
Sen. Hassan followed up on Peters’ questioning, asking if officials were aware of literature from the American Academy of Pediatrics, warning that even short detention time has led to kids experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems.
“I am not, Senator,” said Perez. “Someone else in the agency may be, but I am not.”
The Trump administration has long presented family detention as the only way to enforce immigration law and the only alternative to separating families, but it’s not. In fact, Albence asked the Senate to dedicate more money to alternatives for detention, after criticizing community supervision and electronic monitoring.
The Trump administration was also warned that family separation would traumatize children, but officials went ahead with the policy anyway.
“What I’m concerned about is your own agency says that there shouldn’t be indefinite or long-term detention of children, that it should be as short as possible,” said Hassan. “Instead of going towards the remedies that could help us… going towards those remedies to deal with the immigration surge, you are instead recommending something that experts in child development and welfare ask you not to do.”