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Immigrant children in detention

Thousands of immigrant children have been in the custody of the U.S. government, many under appalling conditions that violate U.S. law and standards set up by the agencies responsible for the care of these children.

More than 10,000 immigrant children are in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in more than 100 permanent sites and two temporary ones.  (Source: NYT) Most of these children are in HHS facilities holding 100-plus total kids, including an expanding site in Homestead, Florida. (Source: AP).


An unknown number of immigrant children are detained by two agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Chronic lack of oversight


The U.S. Government routinely violates its own laws and rules governing the treatment of immigrant children in its custody. One frequently violated set of rules is the Flores consent decree, which requires the U.S. government to place children in the "least restrictive" appropriate setting and to release them after no more than 20 days detention. (Source)


U.S. Border Patrol maintains a system of unheated holding cells (commonly referred to as “hiereras,” Spanish for “freezers”) where immigrants are routinely detained once they’ve crossed the U.S. – Mexico border. While Border Patrol rules limit detention in these cells to no more than 12 hours, the average stay in these cells can range for 48 hours in the El Paso sector, to nearly a week in the Laredo sector. These cells are not equipped with beds, and detainees are forced to sleep on benches or cold concrete floors.


Detainees are routinely denied warm clothing, blankets, soap, sufficient toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and diapers for babies and toddlers. Children in these cells have been subjected to strip searches and sexual abuse. The recent death of 8-year-old Felipe Gómez Alonzo took place after Felipe was held in a Border Patrol holding cell in the El Paso sector.  (Sources: Americans for Immigrant Justice, American Immigration Council)

Unaccompanied minors


HHS is responsible for the care and custody of immigrant children (UAC) who enter the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian. HHS authorized the massive tent prison camp in Tornillo, Texas, where by the government’s own admission, the average confinement was nearly twice the limit set by Flores.


While the Trump Administration has closed the Tornillo detention center, it has announced plans to nearly double the capacity of a similar facility in Homestead, Florida, where it admits that the average confinement is more than three times that set by Flores. Independent observers report that children have been held at these facilities for three months or more. (Source: Miami Herald)


While HHS requires that its care facilities perform FBI fingerprint checks on all personnel working there, these checks were never performed at Tornillo, and HHS waived its requirement this that facility must investigate whether any personnel had a record of child abuse and neglect. (Source: HHS Office of Inspector General) HHS skirts other legal requirement by locating detention centers on federal property, where state licensing and child welfare laws do not apply.  (Source: AP)

The average length of stay for a child detained by ICE ranges from 100 to 240 days, and these children are often held far from family members and without legal representation. Within the last year, the DHS Office of Inspector General has issued three reports finding poor treatment and spotty oversight in ICE facilities. ICE officials have been arrested for the sexual abuse of children in their care. (Source:  National Immigrant Justice Center, ACLU)


There are many ways you can advocate for the rights of child immigrants in detention.



Use your classroom to shine a light on this important issue.


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Teachers Against Child Detention (TACD) is a group of teachers led by Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year.


Janinne Brunyee

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