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One year after the scandal first emerged, why is debate raging again about Trump's child detention camps?

The detention centres have been compared to prisons and concentration camps.

US Border Patrol agents watching Central American migrants who crossed the Rio Grande River from Mexico illegally on the camera of a search helicopter.
US Border Patrol agents watching Central American migrants who crossed the Rio Grande River from Mexico illegally on the camera of a search helicopter.
Image: Kris Grogan via PA Images

Updated Jun 25th 2019, 9:00 AM

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION has faced intensive scrutiny in the last year since it implemented its zero-tolerance policy at the border with Mexico.  

Many human rights groups have compared the detention centres to prisons or even concentration camps over its care of the children it apprehends at the Mexico border.

Some 13,200 children and teens, most of them Central American, are being held in 168 shelters for minors in 23 states across the United States.

Migrant apprehensions at the border with Mexico soared to 144,000 in May this year, the highest number in 13 years, resulting in border patrol stations becoming overcrowded. 

Many temporary shelters have been created as a result. 

The current policy of separating families has come on the back of the “zero tolerance” approach announced by former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year. The children are put in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services and can be placed in a foster home or a shelter. Their parents, meanwhile, are prosecuted for illegally entering the US.

There has been renewed focus on the issue in the wake of the Trump administration’s appeal of a longstanding settlement agreement in court last week.  

US government lawyer, Sarah Fabian, told a three judge-panel at the Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that soap and beds are not essential for detained migrant children. 

Source: Guardian News/YouTube

Why are children being detained? 

A big part of Trump’s first presidential campaign was to crack down on what he referred to as an “immigrant invasion” at the US-Mexico border.

Trump has regularly (and falsely) attempted to pass the blame towards previous administrations for initiating the policy of separating children from their parents.

There isn’t any federal law in the US that mandates the separation of children and parents at the border.

The current policy of separating families has come on the back of the “zero tolerance” approach announced by former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year. 

Under the measure, adults who illegally cross the border will be arrested on criminal charges. For those who come with families, their children are removed from them. Sessions said this policy aimed to deter others from arriving. 

Before the current policy was put in place, adults were not directly referred for prosecution but instead were allowed to submit an asylum application.

Jeff Sessions Resigns As Attorney General Former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions Source: Ken Cedeno via PA Images

Previous Presidents

In 2005, George W Bush instituted a policy called Operation Streamline which also took a hard line on illegal immigration and prosecuted migrants. In this case, exceptions were made for those travelling with children.

Responding to an influx of illegal immigrants in 2014, then-President Barack Obama and his administration put whole families in immigration detention but that was short-lived. After four months families were released while their asylum cases were pending.

The Trump administration differs from that of Obama, and Bush, in treating all those who’ve crossed the border illegally as subject to criminal prosecution, despite any claims to asylum.

This month, Trump used the threat of another trade war to pressure Mexico into doing more to stop migrants as they cross northward to the US from Central America. 

As part of its deal to avert Trump’s threat of five-per cent tariffs on all Mexican goods – which would have risen incrementally to 25% by October – President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government has agreed to deploy 6,000 officers from Mexico’s new National Guard to the US border to stem the flow of migrants. 

Migrants crossing the US-Mexico border wall in Tijuana, Mexico - 13 Mar 2019 Kids are seen playing near the border wall between the United States and Mexico where many asylum seekers have crossed. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

What are the conditions like?

The conditions at the Customs and Border Protection facilities have been an issue of concern for some time.

An Associated Press report last week, based on accounts from lawyers, found “inadequate food, water and sanitation for the 250 infants, children and teens” at a Texas border patrol station.

According to the report: 

“A 2-year-old boy locked in detention wants to be held all the time. A few girls, ages 10 to 15, say they’ve been doing their best to feed and soothe the clingy toddler who was handed to them by a guard days ago.”

Lawyers have warned that kids are taking care of kids, and there’s inadequate food, water and sanitation for the 250 infants, children and teens at the Border Patrol station.

“Three girls told attorneys they were trying to take care of the 2-year-old boy, who had wet his pants and had no diaper and was wearing a mucus-smeared shirt when the legal team encountered him,” the report states. 

Migrant Children Being Held In Homestead Compound The Homestead temporary shelter for unaccompanied children in Florida Source: Susan Stocker via PA Images

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of many who have accused the US of operating “concentration camps”.

During a live stream on her Instagram, the first-term New York Democrat assailed the conditions of detention centres housing thousands of migrants who have crossed the border from Mexico.

“The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalised practice in the home of the free is extraordinarily disturbing, and we need to do something about it,” she said, as she denounced the “authoritarian and fascist presidency” of Trump.

“I don’t use those words lightly,” she added.

I use that word because that is what an administration that creates concentration camps is.

Early this month, Trump’s administration cancelled all special care for children in shelters, citing a lack of funding. This means activities that are not essential or not linked to the children’s physical safety will no longer be funded. 

Mexico-US Border: Mexico steps up security at border after tariff threats Mexican Army, National Guard, Federal Police and Chihuahua State Police patrol the border between El Paso and Juarez Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

What happens next? 

The issue with the border came back into the spotlight last week when an attorney for the Trump administration, Sarah Fabian, said a longstanding settlement agreement requiring sanitary conditions for detained immigrant children may not necessarily mean a toothbrush and soap must be provided for shorter stays.

The hearing at the Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco focused on the US government’s appeal of a federal judge’s 2017 ruling that US authorities breached the agreement after young immigrants caught on the border said they had to sleep in cold, overcrowded cells and were given inadequate food and dirty water.

In its appeal, the Department claims the judge’s order is imposing “new substantive requirements” for the detention of immigrant children that aren’t laid out in the 1997 settlement.

Advocates disagreed, saying the agreement requires youth be held in “safe and sanitary” facilities, which should include basic hygiene items and sufficient food and water.

During the hearing, Fabian said the agreement was vague about what is required to determine a facility is safe and sanitary.

The settlement between advocates for young immigrants and the US government says children should be held in facilities that meet certain standards and released as soon as is reasonably possible, which has been considered to be about 20 days.

The Trump administration is continuing to pass the blame for the conditions in the migrant detention centres, yesterday blaming Congress for not approving the funding to improve the centres. 

Yesterday, US Vice President Mike Pence told CBS News that the administration would be looking to get more resources to improve conditions, adding that the Democrats were the biggest barrier to that. 

House Democrats unveiled a $4.5 billion measure last Friday to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis at the border and the government’s responsibility to care for migrant refugees seeking safety in the US under its asylum laws.

The measure is scheduled for a vote next week.

With additional reporting from Associated Press and - © AFP 2019

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Adam Daly

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