Yet even without making the changes, the administration has failed to abide by Flores’s provisions, and has detained hundreds of children for weeks or months as part of its effort to deter migrants from even attempting to cross the border. In fact, Binford and others say, the administration has disregarded Flores from the start, as epitomized in the zero-tolerance policy that separated children as young as four months old from their parents at the border and held them for months. That policy officially ended in June 2018, after a federal judge issued an injunction and ordered the government to reunite the families, although the ACLU has found that nearly 1,000 children have been detained apart from their parents since then, some being held long beyond Flores’s 20-day limit.
President Trump insisted that the new rule will improve conditions for migrants by attempting to keep families together in facilities. Currently there are three ICE facilities that can accommodate families, although one has been designated for single adults. Lee Gelernt, who heads the national Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU, says the administration’s proposed regulations are “horrendous.” “The medical community has made clear that long-term detention of children, just like separating them from their parents, will cause serious if not irreparable harm.”
It’s far too early to know the long-term effects of throwing a child into a facility for weeks or months at a time. But psychologists and advocates already hear stories of trauma; I’ve been told of children who cut themselves, who cry when their parents leave the room or refuse to board the school bus, fearful that their parents will be deported while they’re gone, children who won’t sleep with the light off, and when they do, dream about being put in a cage called “the icebox.”
Abner, whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy, was 10 years old when he fled Guatemala with his father last year. He told me that his memories of those five months, separated from his family, continue to visit his dreams. In one, he is snatched from his father’s side. In another, “I was left in a kind of jail, very alone, I got very sad, and they told me my dad had been deported.” In a third, a strange woman wants to adopt him. “I didn’t want to be adopted. I didn’t want to be with a family that wasn’t my own.” All three events actually happened.
President Trump says the situation distresses him: “Let me just tell you,” he said yesterday, “very much I have the children on my mind. It bothers me very greatly.” And yet, the endgame for the president is slowing the flow of migrants, and he says his new rule will achieve that. “When they see you can’t get into the United States, or when they see if they do get into the United States, they will be brought back to their country … they won’t come.”