Trump administration moves to eliminate limits on child migrant detentions

The Trump administration on Wednesday announced a new regulation that will allow officials to indefinitely detain migrant families suspected of crossing the border illegally, replacing a rule that put limits on the amount of time a migrant child could be held by authorities.

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The new regulation, announced Wednesday morning by acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, would do away with a decades-old court agreement that requires the government to keep children in the least restrictive setting and to release them as quickly as possible, generally after 20 days in detention.

In a statement issued Wednesday, McAleenan said the new regulation "will permit the Department of Homeland Security to appropriately hold families together and improve the integrity of the immigration system."

The departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services will issue the rule Friday, The Washington Post reported. The regulation will go into effect in 60 days, barring any court challenges.

Parents and children coming into the country are often released into the U.S. while their asylum requests wind their way through the courts — a practice Trump has derided as "catch-and-release."

Unidentified Homeland Security officials told Reuters the rule was expected to deter would-be migrants who hope to gain entry to the U.S. by bringing children with them.

In addition to ending limitations to detaining migrant children, the rule would create a licensing regime, complete with third-party inspections and audits, aimed at making it easier for authorities to expand federal detention nationwide, according to the Post.

The rule change is the latest effort by the Trump administration to curb illegal immigration. Administration officials have blamed the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement for a recent spike in immigration, claiming the court agreement encourages migrants to bring children across the border with the expectation that the children will be released into the U.S. as their cases are pending, Reuters reported.

"In this new rule, the Department of Health and Human Services is implementing the relevant and substantive portions of the Flores Settlement Agreement," McAleenan said Wednesday. "(The agency) will continue to protect the safety and dignity of unaccompanied alien children in our custody."

The new regulation will need to be approved by a federal judge before it can go into effect, The New York Times reported. The regulation was expected to immediately face court challenges.

“This is yet another cruel attack on children, who the Trump administration has targeted again and again with its anti-immigrant policies," Madhuri Grewal, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Wednesday in a statement. "The government should not be jailing kids, and certainly shouldn’t be seeking to put more kids in jail for longer. Congress must not fund this.”

The Flores agreement has been into effect since 1997 but mostly applied to children who came to the country alone. In 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Ghee ruled the requirements were applicable to children who crossed the border with families after the Obama administration tried to detain them together until their cases were completed.

Citing Homeland Security officials, Reuters reported that 390,000 migrant families have been detained since October. More than 430,000 family members have been arrested on suspicion of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally this year while only 100,000 family members were arrested in similar incidents in 2018, according to CNN.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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