A Trump administration effort to detain migrant families and childrenwas met with harsh criticism by Democratic leaders on Wednesday.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced Wednesday a new regulation that would "terminate" the decades-old landmark court settlement known as the. The settlement has for 22 years governed the treatment of migrant children in U.S. custody, requiring government agencies to follow a detailed set of standards while caring for children apprehended by immigration and border agents.
The federal judge who oversees the settlement also prohibited the government from detaining families apprehended with children for more than 20 days. The new regulation would entirely upend that standard.
Congressman Joaquin Castro, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement that the administration is "punishing vulnerable families."
"President Trump and his Administration are doubling down on their cruel agenda by undermining the Flores Settlement in order to indefinitely imprison families and roll back independent oversight," said Castro, a Texas Democrat.
Castro questioned the safety of family detention in his statement.
"Pediatricians and child welfare experts have already stood up against family detention due to the psychological trauma and physical harm inflicted while in custody," Castro said. "We must listen to the experts and uphold Flores to protect the rights, dignity, and humanity of children. For the sake of thousands of immigrant families, the courts must halt this policy before it ever goes into practice."
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also cited pediatricians, saying in a statement that "the Administration is seeking to codify child abuse, plain and simple."
"As the American Academy of Pediatrics has written, 'No child should be placed in detention…even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks," said Pelosi, a California Democrat.
McAleenan said in his press conference announcing the new rule that he believes it will improve protections for children.
"The new rule will protect children by reducing incentives for adults, including human smugglers, to exploit minors in the dangerous journey to our border," McAleenan said.
Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, a former congressman from a district along the border in Texas, noted in a Facebook post Wednesday that seven migrant children have died in the last year either in U.S. custody or soon after release.
"Thousands of kids separated from their parents. Seven children dead as a result of our care. Countless more sleeping on concrete floors under tinfoil blankets. Today, Trump decided the solution is to cage them for longer. The cruelty will only get worse—until we end it," O'Rourke wrote.
But Ken Cuccinelli, the administration's acting director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services, lauded family detention and the new rule, calling today "Flores Day" in a video posted to Twitter.
"With the Flores fix today, something Congress should have done a long time ago, we're looking forward to seeing less and less family units coming across the border," Cuccinelli said.
The new regulation is likely to face significant legal hurdles before it can be implemented. In particular, any change to the Flores Agreement has to be approved by the judge who currently oversees the settlement. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged courts to block the rule.
"Having seen first-hand the awful conditions the Trump administration subjects many migrant families to, it is imperative that the courts immediately block this rule from going into effect," the New York Democrat said.