Editorial: Migrant children shouldn't be detained, but especially not during a pandemic

The Times Editorial Board
A federal judge in L.A. has ordered the U.S. government to speed up the release of minors held in immigration detention centers.  (John Moore / Getty Images)

A federal judge in Los Angeles, concerned that migrant children being held in federal detention are facing dangerous exposure to the coronavirus, ordered the Trump administration on Saturday to speed up the release of minors to relatives or other qualified sponsors. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee stopped short of ordering the children's immediate release because of the need to find appropriate places for them to go and the logistical challenges posed by travel advisories related to the public-health crisis. Given the practical realities, Gee seems to have gone as far as she could.

The government currently holds about 3,600 unaccompanied minors in shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and about 3,300 children with parents at facilities operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Four unaccompanied minors held at a detention facility in New York have tested positive for the virus, and at least one child in a family detention center is under quarantine. As the world has seen from the spread of the virus, where there are a handful of cases, it’s a strong bet that there are more coming, and probably more just waiting to be detected. The government has a significant responsibility to act to protect these children, regardless of President Trump’s draconian immigration policies that forced them into detention in the first place.

People in detention are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because they're held in confined spaces in close proximity to many other people, and they often can't take the preventive measures recommended to reduce the chance of infection. And even before the pandemic, the federal government was detaining migrant children awaiting processing in conditions that were at times unhealthy, denying them access to such basic necessities as soap and clean clothing.

Furthermore, the government should not have been detaining the vast majority of these children in the first place. Psychologists and pediatricians warn that even short-term detention of children, with or without a parent's presence, can cause significant harm. The evidence is clear that children should not be held in detention centers unless the government can make a compelling case that holding them is necessary for public safety. Keeping them in conditions that also put their health at risk is not just inhumane, it is unconscionable.

In fact, most people being detained by the Trump administration do not need to be, regardless of their age. There are more humane means of ensuring that they show up for their deportation proceedings. It is particularly objectionable to subject children to such treatment. Yet the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to immigration enforcement has from the start ignored the humanity of the people it seeks to deter from entering the United States.

Yes, many have no legal right to be here, but many others do have a legal right to seek asylum. None of them deserve to be exposed to a potentially fatal illness.