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Pence defends administration rule change on migrant detention

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Vice President Mike Pence urges audience members to call their state representatives to share support for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement during a speaking engagement in Artesia on Wednesday afternoon. (Alison Penn Photo)

ARTESIA — Vice President Mike Pence said the new rule issued by the Trump administration Wednesday will allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection to hold migrant children indefinitely, thwarting human trafficking and dissuading families from entering the U.S. illegally.

“We believe this takes a real tool away from human traffickers who talk about the catch-and-release practice of the United States and they tell vulnerable families in Central America if you will simply bring children with you, that the United States, and Customs and Border Protection can only detain you for 20 days,” Pence said at a press conference following a trade policy event where he was a guest speaker.

The new rule does away with a 20-day limit on how long children can be detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is part of the Flores Agreement Settlement, a 1997 agreement that establishes standards for the detention of children in U.S. custody. The new rule takes effect in 60 days.

Pence said Wednesday the rule will also ensure the highest standards of humanitarian care for families and children in U.S. custody and allow migrant families to remain together while being detained in the U.S. during the time their asylum claims are being adjudicated.

“And if they have a legitimate asylum claim, then they’ll be granted asylum in that judicial process. And if they don’t, rather than being released after 20 days — that the Flores Settlement requires the United States to do today — we’ll be able to process those families. And if they don’t have a legitimate claim to come into this country, then we will return them to their home countries,” Pence said.

The United States has had to contend with a surge in migrant families coming from Central American countries and entering the U.S. illegally. Migrants have been held in federal facilities that have been described as overcrowded and squalid, according to a July 2 story in The New York Times.

Pence said the rule change, along with President Donald Trump’s effort to build a wall along the U.S. southern border, will help curtail what the administration has referred to as a crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border.

He added Congress also needs to take action to reform immigration laws.

“This rule change today is a beginning, but ultimately, we need Congress to change the laws permanently and make sure Customs and Border Protection have the resources and the legal framework that people will no longer be able to be enticed into taking the long and dangerous journey north,” Pence said.

The rule change was met with criticism from immigration advocates.

Avideh Moussavian, legislative director for the National Immigration Law Center, said in a press release the new rule would allow for the indefinite detention of migrant children and does not provide oversight and standards of care required by the Flores Agreement.

“Today’s announcement is yet another example of this administration’s callous disregard for the health and well-being of children. This unspeakably cruel rollback will result in more children in cages and more families locked up, despite enormously successful, humane and cost-effective alternatives the government willfully refuses to implement,” Moussavian said.

She added the rule will give more authority to the Department of Homeland Security, which has operated detention centers where at least seven children have died while in custody within the last year.

Following the press conference, Pence accompanied by U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross visited the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia.

At the center, Pence saw four demonstrations — by recruits training to be Customs and Border Protection agents — that were of scenarios agents can find themselves in on the southern border. They included administering medical care, reacting to a violent situation and apprehending individuals.

After the demonstrations, Pence spoke to the trainees, expressing appreciation for their willingness to serve their country as agents with Customs and Border Protection.

“You have a job that has probably never been more important in the life of this country and we are grateful to each and every one of you who have stepped up to take that responsibility, and each and every one of you who are training these new officers,” he said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.