ResourcesPress Release

Trump Administration Seeks to Detain Children Indefinitely

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today denounced the Trump administration’s announcement that it would seek to evade its legal obligations under the Flores settlement, which limits the length of time that children can be detained and creates minimum standards for their housing and care. PHR said that defying the 1997 consent decree would place the administration squarely in breach of its legal obligations and violates international norms protecting the rights and wellbeing of children, refugees, and asylum seekers.

Homer Venters, MD, PHR director of programs, said that this announcement amounts to punishing children under the guise of immigration enforcement, contravening universal norms of child protection:

“Child detention is harmful and fundamentally against the best interests of the child. The basic purpose of the Flores settlement is to prevent child detention, while the administration is actively seeking to hold children in jail indefinitely. Instead of pursuing noncustodial alternatives, to minimize harm and trauma, the administration would rather continue to exploit children to advance inhumane and harmful immigration policy objectives. As the medical evidence makes clear, stripping protections from children and adolescents – particularly those who are fleeing persecution in their country of origin and have endured traumatic experiences in transit before arriving in the United States – causes irreparable harm. These detention centers have been proven to fall short of even basic conditions of confinement.”

“The core obligation under Flores is to not jail children, and particularly not as a form of leverage to carry out a fundamentally inhumane ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Using children as a cruel means to an unjust end, and disregarding the extreme harm which results, will unquestionably cause further human rights violations,” he added.

The Department of Homeland Security’s own medical and psychiatric experts have extensively documented the significant threats of harm to children from family detention. These experts monitored and investigated the Karnes and Dilley detention centers in Texas, the Berks detention center in Pennsylvania, and one closed facility, Artesia in New Mexico. They found, among other things:

  • a 16-month-old baby who lost a third of his body weight over 10 days because of untreated diarrheal disease;
  • a 27-day-old infant who was born during his mother’s journey but was not examined by a physician until he had a seizure due to undiagnosed bleeding of the brain;
  • numerous children vaccinated with adult doses of vaccine; and
  • numerous severe finger injuries (including lacerations and fractures) due to spring-loaded closure of heavy doors in a converted medium-security prison.

These risks are certain to increase should the administration defy the terms of the Flores agreement.

PHR clinicians have conducted forensic evaluations at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, since 2015. PHR medical and mental health care experts have consistently reported that these facilities cause re-traumatization for these families, as their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety deteriorated during the time that they were in detention. Parents have told PHR experts that their children do not understand why they are being detained and find that the stress causes their children to have increased mood swings, appetite loss, separation anxiety, and difficulty socializing with other children. PHR experts observed that children were listless and traumatized, and registered the concerns of mothers that their requests for medical care for their children were subjected to dangerous delays.

These reports are consistent with PHR research on the harms of immigration detention generally, as indefinite detention violates the universal prohibition on torture and ill-treatment.

The harms of child detention cannot be repaired by improving standards, a fact that the Flores settlement recognizes by insisting that children should not be detained longer than 20 days. Mental health concerns resulting from detention include severe and chronic anxiety and dread; pathological levels of stress that have damaging effects on the core physiologic functions of the immune and cardiovascular systems, as well as on the central nervous system; depression and suicide; post-traumatic stress disorder; and enduring personality changes and permanent estrangement from family and community that compromise the possibility of the detainee regaining a normal life following release.

PHR urges health professionals to speak out against the administration’s efforts to expand family detention through dismantling the protections provided under Flores. PHR calls on the administration to pursue noncustodial, community-based alternatives to detention, consistent with U.S. obligations under international human rights law and best practices for the treatment of children.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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