ResourcesPress Release

Trump’s New Indefinite Family Detention Rule is Dangerous, Inhumane, and Unlawful: PHR

The Trump administration published a new regulation today that will allow the U.S. government to detain migrant families indefinitely in unlicensed facilities. This new rule upends decades of legal precedent and will dangerously increase the risk of severe health harms for already traumatized children and families.

For more than 30 years, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) experts have conducted forensic evaluations of asylum seekers in the United States. PHR has extensively documented the medical and mental health harms which are an inevitable consequence of the U.S. immigration detention and enforcement system. The medical evidence is clear that detention harms children. Child detention is never in a child’s best interest, violating a mandatory principle of children’s human rights. The administration’s move to terminate the Flores settlement – which limits the detention of immigrant children to 20 days, requires state licensure, and mandates independent monitoring of child housing and detention facilities – is dangerous, inhumane, and unlawful.

 “The Trump administration is doubling down on cruel tactics that knowingly traumatize children,” said Kathryn Hampton, PHR’s Asylum Network program officer. “Using the threat of ‘family separation’ in order to justify indefinite family imprisonment cynically swaps one devastating human rights violation for another.

“The medical evidence is crystal clear that detention for any length of time harms children. The prospect of indefinite imprisonment of kids and their families is truly chilling. The administration is willfully ignoring effective alternatives to detention, which have been proven to result in 90 percent of families attending their immigration hearings.”

“For decades, the Flores settlement has set minimum standards for treatment of children in custody.  Flores directly prohibited indefinite detention of children with their families, precisely because it is harmful and inhumane,” said Ranit Mishori, MD, professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and a PHR Asylum Network member. “The Flores settlement should be codified into law and strengthened, not torn down by the government agencies charged with protecting vulnerable children.

“PHR research has shown that many child asylum seekers have endured extensive and repeated trauma in their home countries, while in transit to the United States, and in U.S. detention settings. This rule change will compound child asylum seekers’ trauma and is a clear abuse of human rights and health.

“Once again, the administration’s immigration policy ignores medical evidence, flouts the law, and holds children hostage for political points.” 

In October 2018, PHR submitted a Public Comment to the Department of Homeland Security on the government’s proposal (“Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Apprehension, Processing, Care and Custody of Alien Minors and Unaccompanied Alien Children, DHS Docket Number ICEB-2018-0002”). It summarizes medical research and legal standards to show how the proposed rule violates the health and human rights of children and migrants, finding that:

  1. Indefinite detention of children is unlawful and deeply harmful.
  2. Indefinite detention of asylum seekers and migrants breaches U.S. obligations under international law.
  3. Family detention facilities cannot ensure humane conditions of confinement for children.
  4. Indefinite detention of children for the purpose of migration deterrence is discriminatory and amounts to inhumane treatment.

The rule change is set to take effect in 60 days and will face legal challenges from immigrant rights groups.

Additional Background on PHR’s Asylum Work:
As the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border has become increasingly severe, PHR has sent teams of medical and mental health clinicians to interview children, families, and other asylum seekers as part of its Asylum Network’s effort to evaluate the medical and psychological conditions of asylum seekers. PHR has documented the medical and psychological trauma caused as a direct result of U.S. migrant detention policies. PHR’s findings make clear that it is time for the U.S. administration to end all policies that lead to the detention of children and separation of families.

In June, PHR released two groundbreaking reports on: 1) the medical and mental health impacts of exposure to trauma in children seeking asylum; and 2) how U.S. immigration enforcement in health facilities is harming patients across the United States. Both reports speak to the severity of the health consequences and the urgent need for policy solutions, and include detailed recommendations for the U.S. government and other parties.

PHR partnered with the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights to produce its report “There is No One Here to Protect You: Trauma Among Children Fleeing Violence in Central America,” which presents the first case series of child and adolescent asylum seekers arriving in the United States. The report documents the physical and psychological harm caused by gang and domestic violence against children in their home countries, as well as compounding trauma experienced by children in transit to the United States and in U.S. immigration detention.

PHR’s policy brief “Not in My Exam Room” documents discriminatory practices by U.S. immigration enforcement that have led to egregious health care violations, including impeding patient care and neglect of medical advice. The brief details harsh immigration enforcement actions within the militarized border zone which are violating patient rights and creating widening racial and ethnic health disparities as well as putting the health care of patients and the ethical obligations of medical professionals at risk.

PHR has repeatedly called on the U.S. administration to guarantee the basic health of individuals in its custody and provide adequate medical treatment of children affected by trauma in regard to both physical and mental health.

PHR Resources on Asylum and the U.S. Border
  • Mobilization/Photos: “Doctor’s Orders: Close the Camps” – a protest by medical professionals in front of the White House after a PHR-organized letter to the Trump administration signed by almost 25,000 people was delivered to the Department of Homeland Security, July 16, 2019
  • Report: “There is No One Here to Protect You,” June 10, 2019
    • Press Release: “Asylum-Seeking Children from Northern Triangle Suffer Multi-Dimensional, Recurrent, Sustained Trauma,” June 10, 2019
  • Policy Brief: “Not in My Exam Room,” June 10, 2019
    • Press Release: “U.S. Immigration Enforcement Practices Violate Patient Rights and Medical Ethics,” June 10, 2019
    • Fact Sheet: “Establishing Sanctuary Hospitals: Protecting the Right to Access Health Care,” June 10, 2019
  • Fact Sheet: “Health Risks of Customs and Border Protection Detention,” July 2019

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.