Capitol Alert

Should migrant kids be held longer than three weeks? California sues over family detention

California is again taking the Trump administration to court over its immigration policies, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced Monday, this time in opposition to a rule that would prolong migrant family detention.

It’s one of nearly 60 lawsuits the state has filed against the Trump administration and the thirteenth immigration-related suit, according to Becerra’s office. California has also sued the federal government to protect California’s sanctuary policies, block construction of a border wall and ban the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

The Trump administration’s new rule would circumvent a 1997 agreement called the Flores settlement that generally prohibits the government from detaining migrant children more than 20 days and requires that they receive food, water, emergency medical care and other necessities. Instead, the government would be able to detain children and families much longer and would set new regulations for detention facilities.

Kevin McAleenan, acting homeland security secretary, said the rule comes in the wake of an “unprecedented” influx of migrants from Central America over the United States’ southern border.

Administration officials argue migrants have exploited the Flores agreement and bring children across the border to avoid being held in custody while they await their day in immigration court.

The new policy will “restore integrity to our immigration system and eliminates the incentive for children to be used or exploited to enter the United States,” McAleenan said last week when announcing the change.

The new rule follows President Donald Trump’s previous attempt to crack down on families bringing children over the border with his family separation policy, which separated at least 2,000 children from their parents. His administration scaled back that policy amid public outrage after pictures and reports emerged of overcrowded detention facilities and children held behind bars.

Becerra pointed to substandard conditions in existing migrant detention facilities and argued the latest rule will worsen the situation. He called the federal government’s attempt to ignore the Flores agreement both illegal and immoral.

“We have all seen the reports of the conditions in immigration camps and we’ve all seen the images of children locked up in cages,” he said. “This new rule callously puts at risk the safety and well-being of children.”

California and Massachusetts are leading the lawsuit before the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, which argues the new rule infringes on states’ oversight of immigrant child welfare and would harm migrant families. Seventeen other states and the District of Columbia have also joined the lawsuit.

This latest development highlights a fundamental disagreement between California leaders and the federal government over how to stem the flow of Central American migrants into the United States.

Newsom, who took his first international trip as governor to the Central American country of El Salvador, has frequently criticized the Trump administration for pulling aid from the region. He’s argued that instead of cracking down on migrants who cross the border, the U.S. should instead boost the economy in countries like El Salvador, where most people who leave cite financial instability.

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating that we’re here reacting at this moment as opposed to more systemically addressing the root causes in a nuanced and sophisticated way,” Newsom said.

As a governor, Newsom can’t control U.S. foreign aid, but says he wants California to partner with El Salvador to promote tourism and help the Central American country learn from California’s travel industry.

In the first three years of Trump’s presidency, the California Department of Justice has spent more than $21 million on legal disputes with the federal government, according to Becerra’s office. But Becerra says its legal challenges have ultimately saved the state money. He pointed to California’s successful effort to block a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, which experts predicted would result in California losing some federal funding.

Also on Monday, Becerra said the state filed a preliminary injunction to block the Trump administration’s public charge rule, which would affect immigrants trying to secure green cards. California had previously sued over that rule, as well.

Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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