A complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s civil rights office on Wednesday alleges that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is indefinitely holding five immigrant fathers and their young children in a South Texas detention center, in violation of a settlement agreement that bars the government from holding undocumented kids for longer than 20 days.
The boys—the youngest of whom is just five years old—have been detained at ICE’s Karnes County detention center for between 41 and 58 days, according to the complaint filed with DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), an immigrant rights group. The 1997 Flores agreement forbids the federal government from detaining undocumented children for longer than 20 days without releasing them into the custody of a sponsor and established standards of care for undocumented minors in federal custody.
“There is no reason to detain these fathers and their children in the first place, and their continued detention is is an egregious violation of rules meant to protect children,” said William Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for RAICES. “These families could easily be released to friends and relatives in the United States, where the fathers could navigate the asylum process and the children could receive adequate care and education. Instead, they are locked up and suffering every day.”
All but one the fathers are still detained at the Karnes detention center, the complaint alleges.
One father, an asylum seekers who has been detained with his 15-year-old son since Jan. 14, says in the complaint that he is “sad and desperate” when he sees other families released from Karnes. He and his son have both been deemed to have a credible fear of persecution, the first step in filing a successful asylum claim, but have remained in ICE detention for nearly three times as long as the Flores settlement allows.
Another father, who was detained with his six-year-old son for 41 days until his release last week, has since been separated from his son, who is being held at a children’s center in San Antonio. At the center, the father said, his son has developed stomach aches, fever, and a rash, at least in part due to the stress of their separation.
“I feel like my head might explode and I’ll suffer an aneurysm,” the father said in the complaint, and worries that his son will face permanent psychological trauma from the experience.
The Trump administration, which dismisses the Flores settlement agreements as a form of “catch-and-release” legalese, has called for its repeal—although that may be unfeasible, since it is a court settlement and not a law—and has supported legislation that would make it easier to hold children in detention indefinitely. ICE has argued that Flores only applies to unaccompanied children, and therefore its protections do not extend to those who arrive with their parents, although a federal appellate court clarified in 2016 that the policy applies to all minors.
That hasn’t stopped ICE and other immigration enforcement agencies from violating numerous aspects of the agreement. In December, it was revealed that eight-year-old Felipe Alonzo-Gomez had been in Border Patrol custody for six days before his death, which remains under investigation. Border Patrol is normally barred by the Flores Agreement from holding children for longer than 72 hours.
Pediatricians have warned that even brief detention can pose serious mental and physical health risks to children, and have called for a moratorium on the practice entirely. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, even a short amount of time in detention can “cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children,” adding that “there is no evidence indicating that any time in detention is safe for children.”
“The practice is abominable and retrograde,” Fitzgerald said. “The United States is worse off because of it.”
DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.