Trump's Track Record On Family Detentions

Aug 24, 2019
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


And the Trump administration is moving to detain migrant families seeking asylum while their cases play out in U.S. immigration courts. That would put children in jail-like settings for months or years. Doctors, psychologists and advocates have been adamant that detention is extremely harmful to children. And as NPR's Joel Rose reports, the detention centers currently holding families for short-term stays have a troubled history.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When Yasmin Juarez reached the U.S.-Mexico border last year, she says her 17-month-old daughter Mariee was happy and healthy. They had fled Guatemala to seek asylum in the U.S. and were sent to a detention center for migrant families in Dilley, Texas.

YASMIN JUAREZ: (Through interpreter) For me, it was the worst experience of my life. My daughter got sick so suddenly and so quickly while we were in detention, and they didn't have adequate treatment for her. It was a horrible, horrible experience.

ROSE: Juarez says she tried repeatedly to get medical care for Mariee, but she says she was sent away with Tylenol and honey and then ignored. Mariee was hospitalized shortly after they were released from Dilley and died six weeks later from a respiratory infection. Juarez is suing the federal government, which has not commented on her case. She says she's shocked anyone would propose holding children in family detention centers like Dilley.

JUAREZ: (Through interpreter) Really, Dilley is no place for children. I think President Trump's decision is cruel and inhumane.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let me just tell you - very much I have the children on my mind.

ROSE: That's President Trump outside the White House defending the new regulations his administration unveiled this week that would make it possible for migrant children to be detained with their parents indefinitely.

Migrant families are arriving in record numbers - more than 400,000 family members since October, many of them fleeing violence in Central America. Right now, they're often released into the U.S. to wait for their day in immigration court to ask for asylum. By detaining them, the president hopes to discourage other migrants.


TRUMP: They won't come, and many people will be saved.

ROSE: But doctors and immigrant advocates say the president is putting migrant children at risk in order to send that message. Seven children have died since last year, either in custody or after being detained by immigration authorities.

Katie Shepherd has worked as a lawyer with families held in Dilley. She's now at the American Immigration Council in Washington.

KATIE SHEPHERD: I'm really angry because in the past two years, we've seen an unprecedentedly high number of immigrant children dying, and now the government is proposing that they eliminate protections for children. And what is going to happen is that we're going to continue to see children perish behind bars.

ROSE: For years, the government has been required to release children from family detention centers as quickly as possible, generally within 20 days. That's because of a long-standing legal agreement called the Flores Settlement. Now the Trump administration is trying to replace Flores with new regulations that would remove the time limit.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan says the regulations would also protect migrant children.


KEVIN MCALEENAN: All children in the government's care will be universally treated with dignity, respect and special concern. The facilities that we will be using to temporarily house families under this rule are campus-like settings with appropriate medical, educational, recreational, dining and private housing facilities.

ROSE: McAleenan described the detention centers in glowing terms as places with big-screen TVs and cushioned couches and access to doctors and therapists. But medical professionals, including some of the government's own advisers, are appalled.

SCOTT ALLEN: I think this policy is reckless endangerment. The proper course would be to not traumatize the child in the first place.

ROSE: Scott Allen knows these family detention centers from his work as an adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. He's also a professor of medicine at UC Riverside. Allen was so alarmed by what he saw at Dilley and other detention centers that he went public as a whistleblower last year.

ALLEN: We've been internally voicing our concerns in very clear terms that children should not be detained, and it's basically been ignored. And the discouraging thing is we're now seeing an escalation, a doubling down on this harmful practice.

ROSE: A federal judge would have to sign off on the new rules before they take effect. Immigration lawyers will begin mounting their legal challenge next week.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.