Don’t Indefinitely Lock Up Families Seeking Asylum

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Should migrant families, many of them seeking asylum, be treated like criminals? Should undocumented children be incarcerated for months while their cases are processed? Are detained families likely to be housed in humane conditions? And would such a strategy be a sensible use of taxpayer money worthy of a nation of immigrants?

The correct answer to these questions is obviously “no.” But that’s not deterring President Donald Trump’s administration. Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a plan to supersede the so-called Flores settlement, a 22-year-old court agreement that limited the time migrant children could be detained. Under the new rules, the White House says it can lock up families indefinitely as their cases are processed.

This policy is as misguided as it is inhumane — and it ignores proven alternatives that would do far more to improve the system.

The U.S. has wrestled with family detentions for decades. The settlement that the administration is trying to displace stems from the case of Jenny Flores, an unaccompanied minor from El Salvador apprehended in 1985 at the U.S.-Mexico border. A lawsuit on her behalf ultimately led a federal court to impose standards for holding minors in immigration custody, including a “general policy favoring release” and a preference for detention “in the least restrictive setting” possible. In 2015, a judge extended these terms to accompanied minors and held that children and their parents caught crossing the border couldn’t be detained for more than 20 days.

Trump has often decried this settlement as a “catch-and-release” loophole that creates an incentive for bogus asylum claims. But the courts have blunted his efforts to get around it. They’re likely to frown on this latest gambit, too. Indeed, 19 states have already sued to stop it — and rightly so.

Incarcerating minors can inflict traumas with long-term consequences, including depression, post-traumatic stress, and other mental and physical ailments. Detaining them indefinitely is likely to worsen all these risks.

Even setting aside this administration’s horrific incompetence in dealing with migrant detentions, the U.S. lacks the facilities to house families. It has just 2,500 beds available in family-residence centers; so far this fiscal year, it has apprehended more than 430,000 family members at the southwest border. Accommodating Trump’s regulatory rewrite could cost as much as $13 billion over 10 years — in the unlikely event that a Democratic House would support such expenditures.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of this reform is that it’s entirely unnecessary. The cost of family detention, at $319 per night per person, is much greater than that of proven alternatives. A pilot program started in 2016, which used intensive supervision rather than incarceration to monitor migrant families, cost just $38 per day per family and had a 99% compliance rate. Further reforms to the asylum system could make such programs even cheaper.

The surest remedy of all remains hiring more immigration judges. The modest progress made in this area doesn’t match the urgency of the crisis, with nearly 1 million people waiting to have their cases heard and fewer than 500 judges to handle the workload. Given legal migration flows and the still-rising tide of displaced people, doubling that number would be a sensible investment.

Instead of trying to detain migrant families indefinitely in yet-unbuilt facilities, the administration should expand successful alternatives, accelerate existing asylum cases and eliminate the backlog in the immigration courts. In other words, it should focus on what works, not on inhumane and unrealistic punitive measures.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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