“This Government Is Cruel And Inhumane” Towards Immigrant Children”: Peter Schey

The lead attorney in the Flores agreement speaks about the Trump Administration.

Attorney Peter Schey, of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. (Photo by Aurelia Ventura for La Opinion)

President Donald Trump focused his anger last week on a caravan of mostly Honduran migrants marching in the direction of the US-Mexican border, and argued that they were coming to take advantage of a “loophole” of the law that allows them to “go free”.

What Trump calls a “loophole in the law”, is a 1997 court agreement between the federal government and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law of Los Angeles, the result of a lawsuit filed by the center to demand minimal humanitarian treatment for underage migrants. 
This agreement is called the Flores case.

Schey, the lead lawyer in the agreement, alleges that the Trump government has been violating the agreement “in multiple ways”.

“We need an army of lawyers to protect these children, we really do”, said Schey.

What follows is a transcript of the interview with Schey.

The Donald Trump government has been saying that the Flores agreement, which sets minimum standards for the detention of migrant children, is a “flaw” in the law and threatens security. How do you respond to this?

If President Trump thinks that Flores is an obstacle to accomplishing his racist policies towards immigrant children, he should instruct his lawyers to file a motion in court to nullify the agreement. That’s what a normal president would do.

The Obama administration tried to modify the agreement in 2015, not to abolish it but rather to not apply to children who are accompanied by an adult. But the judge rejected this and so did the appellate court.

He should go to court then, there is no other way to nullify the agreement, which was carried out after years of litigation in 1997 between the federal government and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. To eliminate it they have to go to court.

Trump said last weekend that minors come from Central America because they know that this “loophole” (agreement) allows them to “get out easily”.

Flores does not encourage any undocumented child to come to the United States. We have spoken with thousands of these minors and mothers, and none has ever said that the reason they came is this policy. They come to this country because they fear for their lives.

The president has not offered any kind of evidence to prove the claims he makes about Flores. It’s his style: inventing false stories and not giving any proof.

They keep talking about “catch and release”, they talk about it all the time and it’s a false story. There has been no such policy since 2015 when President Obama began to stop and incarcerate mothers and children after the increase in migration from Central America.

They have paid hundreds of millions to private prisons to stop tens of thousands of mothers and children. When Trump and Sarah Huckabee (White House spokeswoman) go on TV saying that there is a “catch and release”, that they are caught and released, they are simply lying to the entire American public.

It’s crazy, they make things up that have nothing to do with reality, but it’s like red meat for their base of voters, for racists and xenophobes.

What is the situation of migrant children who arrive in the United States seeking refuge then?

We are fighting against several of Trump’s new policies and we continue to win in court. These are measures of the medieval era. In my opinion, they are torturing children by separating them from mothers and fathers, they do not allow them to communicate, they do not tell parents where they are and they are even giving medication to children.

The kids are so upset and depressed that the Trump government is medicating them without their parents’ permission, they are giving them different types of medications because the children are suffering from anxiety and depression.

Or, for example, they deport their parents, accusing them of a crime and deporting them. And they do not ask them if they want their children to accompany them, and they are being sent to foster homes. It would not cost them that much to look for them on the computer and take them to the airport so they can leave with their parents. But they are not doing it. Essentially, they are separating parents and children permanently.

Trump has said he will ask Congress to change that “defect in the law.” Is this viable?

Congress could do it but we hope it does not happen in the Senate. We do not know but we hope there are enough people in Congress who really care about the safety of the children and they will not allow that change.

The only reason why these children can shower once in a while, and that they do not sleep on the cold concrete floor, the only reason they have soap to wash, is because of the Flores case.

Even for that we had to go back to court and in June 2017 we won an order that is being appealed right now by Judge Dolly M. Gee (federal judge in Los Angeles), where the magistrate had to tell the Trump government: you can not make these children sleep in cold concrete floors, without blankets, and you have to give them soap and towels, you can not give them soiled underwear, and you can not give them food in poor condition. And yet they are appealing to another court, saying yes, they can do all of that.

We should not have to fight to meet the most basic humanitarian standards.

Since you filed the lawsuit in the 1990s, there have been several different administrations and you had to make sure that the agreement is followed. Who has been the most difficult President in this regard?

This Administration is the worst. I never saw a government so avid for cruelty and so inhuman towards children and minors. Never before, neither Democrats nor Republicans. We had disagreements with some about compliance with the Flores agreement, but we never saw, even at the beginning of the lawsuit, such cruel treatment of immigrant children.

And I do not think that he does it out of hatred towards children, he simply does it because that is what he thinks he is guaranteed to win in the future presidential election.

In the meantime, we have to apply the agreement. What they are doing now is separating parents from children, deporting parents and children treating them as unaccompanied children. They end up in a shelter of ORR (Office of Resettlement) and then in foster care. Essentially, they are stealing children from their parents.

(A version of this article in Spanish appeared in La Opinion on April 6th, 2018)