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Trump’s New Migrant Detention Policy Is Systemic Child Abuse

The indefinite detention of migrant families promotes child abuse, "plain and simple."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi slammed the Trump administration’s determination to roll back rules related to the detention of migrants, calling it an attempt to “codify child abuse, plain and simple.” Her criticism comes in response to the president’s new family incarceration plan, designed to replace established rules on how the government must legally care for detained children. The administration’s plan would allow for indefinite detention of migrant families, which the American Academy of Pediatrics note can lead to children experiencing anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Considering the federal definition of child abuse includes “An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” to a child, It’s clear that Pelosi is correct: The Trump administration plans to not only permit, but potentially encourage acts of child abuse.

Why would the Trump administrations admit to wanting to abuse children, something one would hope all Americans (realistically, minus the hardcore racists) could unite behind? The White House is frustrated by rules established by the 1997 Supreme Court case of Reno v. Flores. The case began as a class-action lawsuit involving migrant children including Jenny Lisette Flores, who was placed for two months in an adult detention center with men and women she did not know and subjected to regular strip searches in 1985. The agreement, known as the Flores Settlement Agreement or the FSA, was arbitrated by the central district court of California, which continues to oversee the rules. Those rules require that the government detain migrant children in the least restrictive environment possible and release children to parents, guardians or a licensed program within 20 days of detention.  

These guidelines are intended to help the government avoid actions or non-actions that could result in “death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation,” which constitute the definitition of abuse under the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. (Not that government employees would likely be arrested, but the optics — as they say — are not good.)

The Trump administration has been fighting the FSA regulations since 2017 when they appealed judges ruling that required the federal government to provide soap and hygiene products to migrant children in custody. In 2018, Trump lost an appeal in an attempt to change the rules of the FSA so that families could be detained indefinitely. The move announced this week is not an attempt to amend the FSA. Trump intends to scrap it entirely.

Even with the FSA in place, children have been kept in overcrowded and freezing detention centers with insufficient access to water, food or medical care. (President Obama was not blameless on these issues, but acknowledged the problem rather than exacerbating it.) Seven children have died in border control custody under President Trump’s watch. Four of those children died of the flu. And yet, the Trump administration says that it will not provide flu vaccines to migrant children. Again, failure to provide medical care to a child is tantamount to abuse and the Flores agreement stipulates that the government will provide medical care. Stripping away those rules would only result in the deaths of more migrant children. 

Put less technically, Trump has a history of abuse and is looking for political cover or legal leeway to commit further acts of abuse. He is announcing his intention to abuse children and, by and large, the members of his party are saying nothing.

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In their prolonged detention, the government has become a defacto guardian of the children seeking a better life in America. If a guardian or parent treated an American child with the kind of callous indifference, cruelty, neglect and disdain given to migrant children by the government, those parents would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and likely jailed. 

In attempting to do away with the Flores agreement, the Trump administration is seeking to legally engage in the abuse of children. And that is not only morally appalling, but it is also downright evil.