The Trump administration’s plan to detain migrant families together means they’ll likely be held in facilities run by private prison companies that may not be equipped to meet the physical and mental-health needs of children.
Experts have expressed concerns about the impact that detention will have on kids’ health and described how children show regressive behaviors—such as bedwetting and trouble eating—when kept in detention facilities with their families. The American Academy of Pediatrics last year released a brief noting the prison-like conditions, inadequate access to health care, and lack of developmental or educational opportunities within these facilities.
Instead, the government could release families into the country, which experts say is the best option. They suggested that families could wear ankle bracelets or have required check-ins with immigration officials, among other solutions.
The government’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border was blocked by a recent court ruling, and the White House is re-strategizing so that families may be— possibly indefinitely—detained together. The government is working on reunifying more than 2,000 kids that were separated from their parents as a result of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
The U.S. government is holding families in three facilities: the South Texas Family Residential Center, run by CoreCivic; the Karnes County Residential Center, operated by the GEO Group; and Berks Family Residential Center, run by Berks County in Pennsylvania. All three are contracted through Immigration Customs and Enforcement, in which CoreCivic’s facility is the largest with 2,400 beds.
“[T]he Government will not separate families but detain families together during the pendency of immigration proceedings when they are apprehended at or between ports of entry,” the Justice Department wrote in a notice of compliance submitted last week. The U.S. government argues that detainment is necessary to protect the border, to discourage families from making the journey and to return families to their home countries quickly.
Although advocates lobbied for immigrant families to be kept together in opposition to the zero-tolerance policy that put children into the custody of the Health and Human Services Department, experts are concerned about the Trump administration's latest order. Keeping families in detention—rather than releasing them into the community to wait out their pending cases—can take a serious toll on the health and welfare of the children, even those held with their parents.
“There is no evidence that any amount of time in detention is safe for children, and even short periods of time in detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental-health risks for children,” said Julie Linton, cochair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Immigrant Health Special Interest Group.
Linton added that the parents can provide a buffer for severe stress, but children’s development can still suffer if they are exposed to prolonged anxiety with their family.
“We have a lot of kids who just stop eating and it’s hard to tell how much of it is a physical illness and how much of it is some kind of depression,” said Katy Murdza, the advocacy coordinator with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. The group represents detained mothers and children at the South Texas Family Residential Facility.
“I talked to an 8-year-old the other day; her mom had told me that she stopped eating,” Murdza said. “This girl is very articulate, she has spoken in front of the judge about the things that she witnessed that are relevant to her asylum claim, and she just told me, ‘I don’t get hungry anymore.’ That clearly was not normal for this girl, but having been here for almost 2 months had really changed her.”
According to Murdza, children occasionally have to participate in credible-fear proceedings to try to avoid being deported, which means preparing children to talk about traumatizing events. The 8-year-old girl had to tell a judge about watching her father’s murder. “She is being deported and has told her mother she is afraid the men will find out what she said and kill them when they arrive,” Murdza said.
A Homeland Security Department advisory committee on family residential centers released a report in late 2016 recommending that children should have access to medical services 24 hours a day, and that parents should not have to wait a lengthy period to receive treatment. “Parents and children should not have to wait 24 hours for treatment and should not have to wait for their health care needs to become urgent to receive quicker attention and treatment,” the report stated.
ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett told National Journal in a statement that comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals in the agency’s custody. “Staffing for residents includes registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, licensed mental health providers, mid-level providers that include a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, a physician, dental care, and access to 24-hour emergency care, as noted in the FRC standards,” she said.
But the advisory committee found that detaining children overall was not a good option, and that instead families should be released with case-management programs if needed. “DHS’s immigration-enforcement practices should operationalize the presumption that detention is generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families—and that detention or the separation of families for purposes of immigration enforcement or management are never in the best interest of children,” the report said.
While experts overwhelmingly supported the end of family separation, they acknowledged that under Trump's policy this would mean moving children from facilities run by HHS, which oversees unaccompanied migrant children, to DHS detention centers.
“The [HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement] shelters are oriented and designed and certified around the welfare of the child,” said Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council. “Family detention, its focus is on detaining families until a Homeland Security official or an immigration judge has made a determination that they can be released from custody.”
As a result, Murray said the childcare standards in the DHS facilities do not match those of the HHS programs.
Getting the family detention centers ramped up to adequately care for children can be complex and expensive. DHS is looking for more space for detained families, and last week asked the Defense Department about housing for up to 12,000 migrants on military bases.
“They’re not designing these places to be developmentally appropriate, they’re detention facilities, they’re jails, they’re putting 2-year-olds in jail, that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me,” said Megan Gunnar, director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.
Gunnar said keeping the families together was better than separating parents from their children at the border. “But then we have to think about, are we keeping them together in facilities that are developmentally appropriate for children?” she said. “If we’re going to do that then we need to make those facilities developmentally appropriate, which is going to be costly to do.”