Detaining migrant children 'immoral and inhumane,' says Catholic group joining lawsuit

Immigrants Credit Ryan Rodrick Beiler Shutterstock CNA Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock.

More than 10,000 migrant children still detained by the U.S. government are wrongly being used to lure undocumented family members into a situation where they can be detained, says a Catholic immigrant advocacy group that has joined a federal class action lawsuit seeking their release.

"We cannot allow this administration to continue to intentionally keep children away from their families, it is immoral and inhumane," Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), said Jan. 23.

The lawsuit charges that the Trump administration aimed to deter illegal immigration by adopting a policy "to use detained immigrant children as bait to arrest immigrants who come forward to sponsor them, even while explicitly acknowledging that this would prolong the detention of immigrant children."

This "twisted the sponsorship process" from the intentions of Congress to ensure migrant children's safety and to place them "in the least restrictive setting as quickly as possible," according to the lawsuit, filed Jan. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Trump administration policy for the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has led to the illegally prolonged detention of the migrant children, it charged.

Atkinson said the Office of Refugee Resettlement is "ignoring the law established by Congress by detaining rather than releasing the children to their loved ones."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched CLINIC in 1988 to support community-based immigration programs. CLINIC and its affiliates represent low-income migrants. The network has about 330 programs in 47 states and the District of Columbia, its website says.

CLINIC cited a late 2017 memo from the Trump administration, obtained Jan. 17, 2019, that said the administration intended this prolonged detention of children to serve as "a deterrent to migrants who want to travel to the United States."

"Among other things, it showed that information gathered during the reunification process was being used to facilitate ICE's efforts to arrest and deport potential sponsors and relatives of the detained youth," said CLINIC's statement.

As of Jan. 20, the number of children in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement is at 10,700, down from a peak of 14,600 in December 2018. Lydia Holt, a spokesperson for the office, told National Public Radio.

The office abruptly streamlined its sponsor screening process last month, after a federal contractor of the largest migrant shelter, a desert tent camp in Tornillo, Texas, refused to agree to a contract extension.

On May 4, the Department of Homeland Security began referring all people crossing the border illegally to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution.

This "zero-tolerance policy" was implemented in response to a report that unauthorized border crossings increased 203 percent in 2017. The majority of people arriving at the U.S. border had fled Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, according to the U.N.

The goal of the policy is to prosecute 100 percent of the people who cross the border illegally, Melissa Hastings, a policy advisor for the U.S. bishops' migration and refugee services, told CNA in June 2018.

The policy has no exceptions for families who turn themselves over to U.S. border authorities on the grounds that they are seeking legal asylum. In the majority of cases, border patrol never asks the parent or accompanying adult if they can verify their relationship, Hastings said.

Once a child is separated and their parent detained, communication between family members becomes very challenging. The shelters caring for the children have to identify where the separated parent has been detained and establish contact.

Since March of 2018 at least four federal lawsuits have been filed challenging the policy.

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Migrants' advocates say there are family members who can take in minors as an alternative to detaining the minors for months. Most underage migrants traveled from Central America alone or without a parent or legal guardian. Most ask for asylum, citing the danger of violent street gangs in their home neighborhoods, National Public Radio reports.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose longtime criticism of U.S. migration policy has become more prominent under the Trump administration, also rejected the practice of separating children and parents.

"Children are not instruments of deterrence but a blessing from God," Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, chair of the bishops' migration committee, said in June 2018.

Separating families at the U.S. border "does not allay security concerns," he said, adding, "Rupturing the bond between parent and child causes scientifically-proven trauma that often leads to irreparable emotional scarring."

In June 2018, the United Nations human rights office condemned the U.S. practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border as "a serious violation of the rights of the child."

CLINIC's partners include faith-based institutions, farmworker programs, domestic violence shelters, ethnic community organizations, libraries and other entities that serve immigrants. It has about 2,300 accredited representatives and attorneys who serve hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year.

The organization has joined the class action lawsuit to an amended complaint on behalf of the approximately 10,000 detained children. The legal case is known as J.E.C.M. et al v. Lloyd et al.

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The latest lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Legal Aid Justice Center and Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox PLLC.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is not without controversy. Founded in 1971, it originally monitored persons and groups fighting the civil rights movement. It then began tracking racist and white supremacist groups like neo-Nazis and affiliates of the Ku Klux Klan. It also claims to monitor other "extremist" groups it considers to be anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.

More recently, the SPLC has listed as "hate groups" mainstream Christian groups like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom, saying they take an "anti-LGBT" stance. The Ruth Institute has also been included in this list.

The designation has had financial consequences. The Amazon Smile donation program and payment processors have dropped several of the groups based on the listing.

In 2012, an armed shooter at the Family Research Council's D.C. headquarters wounded a security guard before he was detained. He told FBI agents he was motivated by "their stance against gay rights" and cited the SPLC's listing of the group as a "hate group."

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