The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced that it’s discontinuing or scaling back recreational, legal, and educational services for detained unaccompanied migrant minors. That means a loss of soccer games, a loss of English classes, and a loss of legal aid. The request will undoubtedly make life worse for the thousands of immigrant children detained in HHS facilities, but the department claims it does not have the funds to continue services and must instead prioritize “safety.” But let’s not kid ourselves. If Trump wanted migrant children to be cared for, they would be cared for. Instead, the administration has long seen children as pawns in the immigration fight, in blatant disregard of both child development and, most likely, the law. So much for being a country that cares about children.
Lack of HHS funding or not, the Trump administration is likely to see the worsening conditions for detained migrant children as a needed deterrent. After all, that was the stated goal of 2018’s family separation policy that resulted in at least 2,654 children, including babies, being separated from their parent or caregiver and literally caged. The thought process seems to be that if potential migrants believe that they will suffer upon arriving in the U.S. to seek asylum, they will not come. Clearly, they have underestimated the terror of the violence, poverty, and unrest in Central American from where most of the migrants originate.
And while HHS claims the removal of services is to focus on safety, that doesn’t particularly track with their actions. Play is an important part of childhood development. It helps kids stay physically and psychologically healthy. Removing play is not “safe” the same way leaving a baby in a crib for an entire day is not “safe.” The removal of legal services and education isn’t safe either. It ensures that children, most of whom can’t speak English, are lost in a system they have no way of understanding or navigating. That will only serve to make their circumstances worse, not better.
More than that, the conditions migrant children will be left in likely violate the Flores Agreement, which stipulates how migrant children in federal custody can be treated. That agreement says that children should be held in the least restrictive environment and be released to guardians without unnecessary delay. The lack of play is certainly a restriction. And the lack of education and legal aid can only serve to increase the time children are in detention.
The well-being of children has often been invoked by politicians seeking to project an image of care and alignment with American family values. But it has become increasingly clear that the Trump administration has little to no regard for children deemed unworthy of care. The conditions for children entering the U.S. are atrocious and getting worse. But those conditions will not deter parents from fleeing what they see as worse conditions in their homeland. Instead, the conditions in U.S. facilities simply deepen the victimization of already victimized children.
The outcomes for these kids aren’t great as a recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatricians points out. “Conditions in U.S. detention facilities, which include forcing children to sleep on cement floors, open toilets, constant light exposure, insufficient food and water, no bathing facilities, and extremely cold temperatures, are traumatizing for children,” the AAP noted in a 2018 statement. “These are not appropriate places for children.”
And until conditions are fixed, children will continue to suffer under the American flag. That should make all of us uncomfortable.