A new bill from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) would harm undocumented immigrant children by detaining them for longer periods and allowing immigration officials to send them back to life-threatening situations in their home countries. Immigrant rights advocates argue the legislation wouldn’t even achieve its stated purpose: deterring undocumented families from coming to the U.S.
Graham introduced the bill on Wednesday, vowing that it would discourage families and unaccompanied children from crossing the border by ending legal “loopholes” that he said prevent them from being deported quickly.
“Word is out on the street in [Central American] countries that if a child can get here by themselves, then the chance of them staying in America is almost 100%,” Graham said at a press conference on Wednesday. The senator also claimed that if you “bring a minor child with you [to the U.S.], the chance of being deported goes to zero.”
Graham’s bill would increase the length of time children can be detained with their families from 20 to 100 days and would allow Border Patrol agents to quickly send unaccompanied children back to Central America under certain circumstances. It would also direct the Justice Department to hire 500 more judges to help clear the immigration backlog and require people to apply for asylum from their home countries.
Immigrant rights advocates say the legislation is based on falsehoods about how the system works. They argue that the proposed policy changes would endanger immigrant children and do nothing to deter them and their parents from coming to the U.S.
“The plan is shortsighted and enforcement first,” said Jennifer Podkul, the senior director for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that advocates for and represents unaccompanied immigrant children. “It’s a very dangerous way to address the issue.”
A spokesperson for Graham declined to answer specific questions about criticisms of the bill, other than to point to an office press release stating that the legislation will “help protect children by ensuring asylum claims are filed from their home area.”
At his press conference, Graham repeatedly referred to the “humanitarian crisis” at the border and touted how his proposed solution would “turn off the faucet” of immigrants heading to the U.S.
It’s true that record numbers of families are being apprehended at the border and that the Department of Homeland Security is struggling to process them within a system that was primarily designed to detain immigrant men. In April, Border Patrol agents detained more than 58,474 immigrant families, the highest-ever recorded number.
Immigrant families are often released into the U.S. while they await court hearings because of the capacity of detention centers, limited resources to transport people to those centers and legal restrictions on how long children can remain locked up. There are only three family detention centers in the U.S., one of which is currently being used to hold adult women, although these facilities are currently not at capacity. Data also show that the majority of asylum-seekers who are released from detention show up for their court hearings.
But the Trump administration is still focused on finding ways to detain immigrants.
One often-raised idea is to discourage parents from bringing or sending their children by lengthening the period the kids can be held in family detention centers ― as Graham’s bill would from 20 to 100 days.
But immigrant rights advocates say the current 20-day limit ― which is based on a 2015 agreement between the government and a federal judge on what is a reasonable amount of time for processing families during periods of influx or emergency ― is already often violated. Bridget Cambria, an attorney at the nonprofit Aldea, which represents immigrants in a Pennsylvania-based family detention center, said families are regularly detained for longer than 20 days and, in some cases, up to 700 days.
Even if the government adopts an official policy of holding families for 100 days, Cambria said, it wouldn’t deter people who are fleeing extreme violence in Central America. Over the past year, minors who cross the border without their parents have been detained for record amounts of time, yet they are also crossing the border in record numbers.
Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, a Texas-based immigration lawyer, also said that “detention is not a deterrent” and that in many cases parents are choosing between seeking asylum in the U.S. or staying in a place where their child could be raped or killed.
While longer detention times may not stop immigrant families, it does have negative effects on children. Experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics have warned that kids in detention centers experience toxic stress, a constant flood of hormones that can impair brain development, result in mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and lead to long-term physical issues such as heart disease and diabetes.
Family detention centers are particularly traumatizing for children because unlike shelters for unaccompanied children, they are not licensed by state authorities and they are run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (rather than the Office of Refugee Resettlement). Child and immigrant rights advocates say that these facilities often don’t meet minimum child welfare standards and that the presence of deportation officers is intimidating for kids.
“Family detention centers are jails that have just been converted to house children,” said Lincoln-Goldfinch, adding that she has seen children being disciplined by guards for doing “typical kid stuff” like fighting over toys or playing too loudly. Cambria said that it’s common for kids to stop eating after arriving in these facilities and that the medical care they receive is often subpar.
“No human being should be in these facilities where the most rudimentary standards are not adhered to,” said Neha Desai, the director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law. “They are developmentally inappropriate for any child.”
Graham’s bill would also allow immigration officials to send unaccompanied minors back to Central America, after determining they aren’t victims of human trafficking and don’t fear persecution in their home countries. Customs and Border Protection officers can currently send back only those children from Mexico and Canada. Immigrant rights advocates say it’s an ineffective deterrent that puts children’s lives at risk and should not be expanded.
In 2014, a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that Border Patrol agents were failing to properly screen children and were sending them back to dangerous situations.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say we’re sending kids back to a death sentence,” said Podkul, adding that such children receive less protection than adults who cross the border.
Unaccompanied children who are forcibly returned to Mexico will often try to cross the border again, Podkul said, and cartels deliberately target the Mexican kids knowing they will be repeatedly turned back rather than criminally charged for smuggling. The lawyer represented one teenager who was returned to Mexico four times, despite telling Border Patrol agents that he was being forced to carry drugs for a cartel.
If the government wants to lower the number of asylum-seekers in the U.S., Podkul said it should establish trauma-informed screening procedures done by lawyers who can accurately determine whether a child can safely return to their home country, rather than letting intimidating immigration officials without the proper training question the kids.
And instead of detaining children for longer periods, Cambria said the government should resurrect the family case management program, which provided case managers to help immigrants move through the legal system. The Trump administration ended that effort in 2017.
Graham said Wednesday that while his four core proposals are essential to solving the immigration crisis, he was willing to work with Democrats to broaden the bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Graham chairs, is set to hold a hearing and vote on the bill in the near future.
It’s disappointing Graham proposed legislation that would harm children instead of dealing with the border crisis in a humane way, said Cambria.
“We don’t need to legislate harm to children,” she said. “Once you saw how people reacted to family separation, how could that be your response? You think we’d become smarter as a country but we keep going in the wrong direction.”