The US government yesterday announced a new rule doing away with a current limit on the time that migrant children can be held in federal custody after crossing into the United States with adults applying for asylum.
The move is aimed at reducing the number of families arriving at the US-Mexico border and being released into the United States.
The Trump administration has long complained that the time limit of 20 days for children has meant families are released into the country to await a court date that could be years in the future.
The rule proposal comes after the administration’s policy of separating adults from their children caused a massive outcry in the last year, but it could fall afoul of a court ruling on children in detention.
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan announced the new rule, saying smugglers and people with meritless asylum claims have abused a settlement agreement reached years ago in a court case that set the 20-day limit for holding children in federal custody.
McAleenan said the requirements of the court settlement do not fit the current immigration crisis and the record number of families arriving at the south-western US border.
In the 10-month period from October 2018 to July, the number of families detained at the south-western border was 475,000, McAleenan said.
The number is three times more than any previous full-year record.
He told a news conference that the rule announced Wednesday establishes new standards of care for families, who will be held together in administrative custody while awaiting a ruling on their asylum applications.
McAleenan described facilities that will be used to house families as
“fundamentally different” from those that have come under scrutiny for overcrowding and poor conditions.
Among their amenities will be community living rooms, classrooms, libraries and football fields, he said.
The centres will hold the families while their asylum claims are processed, helping to end the practice of migrants failing to appear for their court hearings, DHS said in a news release.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she expects the rule to be
“swiftly” struck down by the US district court because it attempts to circumvent an agreement reached in a prior lawsuit on the treatment of immigrant minors.
Pelosi ripped into the rule in a statement, saying it shows that the administration is “seeking to codify child abuse.” The prolonged detention of children “would compound the cruelty and accelerate the heart-breaking humanitarian situation at the border,” she said.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, said the rule is another example of his administration’s tough immigration stance.
It will help keep families together while deterring people smugglers and migrants who have no legitimate asylum claim, he said.
When people realise that the border is closing and that they will be sent back if they do not have an asylum case, “they won’t come and many people will be saved and many women’s lives will not be ruined.”
Trump has spoken many times about the vulnerability of women as they travel through Central America en route to the US, saying many are sexually abused by smugglers.
He also said the situation that children are in at the border “bothers me greatly.”
He called on Democrats in Congress to support immigration reform and said his administration is looking seriously at birth-right citizenship, calling it “ridiculous.”
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