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Trump Is Legalizing Concentration Camps for Immigrant Families

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On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that it would be fundamentally changing how undocumented immigrant children are to be treated by the federal government. If the new rules—due to be officially published today—are allowed to stand, we will have entered a new era. From now on, the full might of the US government will be devoted to indefinitely detaining immigrant children in facilities that, to all intents and purposes, are concentration camps—places as bleak and lacking in human dignity as one of the original concentration camps, in which the British held tens of thousands of Boer families during the South African wars of the late 19th century.

As with last week’s rewrite of the “public charge” rules, the nativists have turned to regulatory “reform” to shred existing law and legal precedent, and to eviscerate the rights and protections of immigrants. And, as with public charge, they will certainly run into a barrage of lawsuits to stop the implementation of these new regulations.

For the past 22 years, how the federal government treats detained immigrant children has been guided by the terms of the Flores settlement.

Flores began as a class-action lawsuit in California in 1985 and was settled 12 years later. The agreement that the federal immigration agency (at the time called the Immigration and Naturalization Service) entered into in 1997 established a set of rules to protect children. These included standards on how and where kids could be detained, and also limits on the length of time that they could be kept incarcerated. The rules required that detention facilities be licensed by the states and held to the same standards as foster care and group homes, providing access to education, safe food and water, decent bedding, outdoor exercise, suitable clothing, English language classes, medical care, and so on. As for duration: The rules made it clear that children had to be released “without unnecessary delay,” defined as 20 days by a subsequent case. And Flores upheld the principle that families should remain united; in practice, this meant that detained immigrant families would be processed and released within three weeks of their detention.

Anti-immigrant groups have long held up Flores as a bugbear, arguing that it provides an incentive for undocumented migrants to use children as get-out-of-jail-free cards.

The new regulations, which would result in the sunsetting of the Flores agreement 45 days after their publication (though the government says the regulations won’t go into effect for 60 days), will take away state licensing authority over family detention facilities and hand that power over to ICE. At the same time, it will remove the ability of designated lawyers, who have a mandate under Flores to monitor the conditions children are kept in, to even set foot in the detention centers.

All of this, as we have seen in recent actions, is unlikely to result in anything good. After all, confronted with stories of hungry, sick, immigrant children sleeping on concrete floors, federal attorneys dared to go to court recently to argue that they weren’t obligated to provide them with soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, bedding, and even food fit for human consumption. Compounding the shameful behavior, earlier this week it was revealed that Customs and Border Protection will not be vaccinating inmates in its facilities—despite the fact that three children have died of flu in detention centers this year, and despite the fact that, as I reported for The Nation earlier this year, volunteer doctors and nurses working with immigrants released from these centers report an alarming incidence of flu and other dangerous pulmonary and infectious diseases.

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