The senseless cruelty of the Trump administration’s cuts to legal aid for detained migrant minors

The administration also plans to cut funding for English classes and recreational activities, saying they are "not directly necessary" for traumatised, locked-up children.

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The Trump administration is cancelling legal aid, as well as funding for English classes and recreational activities for unaccompanied minors who are detained crossing the border into the US, the Washington Post has reported.

The reason for these cuts, according to various government officials quoted in the newspaper, is that finances are under strain because of the spike in border crossings as people – including children travelling with or without their families – flee violence, political instability and poverty in Central America.

Items such as legal aid, English lessons or playtime are “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety”, the Health and Human Services department spokesman Mark Weber told the Post.

Weber chooses to ignore the patent truth that children forced for lack of legal aid to defend their own immigration claims are most likely to have their claims refused and be deported to countries where their lives are at risk. He chooses to pretend that traumatised and vulnerable children detained while exercising their international right to seek asylum might need anything other than food, water, and perhaps some flat surface to lie on. He chooses to pretend that there could be some moral justification in imprisoning children who have committed no crime, and then holding them under worse conditions than those experienced by many adults caught up in the US’s harsh and punitive criminal legal system.

Immigrant aid and advocacy groups are understandably outraged. “It’s bad enough that the Trump administration is trying to normalise the warehousing of children. It’s unconscionable that they would so blatantly try to strip them of their rights. Locking up children and then denying them legal aid, education, and even playtime is all part of this administration’s cruel efforts to dehumanize people who have come to the US seeking safety,” said Denise Bell, a researcher for migrant rights at Amnesty International.

RAICES, a Texas non-profit offering legal services to immigrants, described the policy as “inhumane, unnecessary and illegal”, and warned in a statement on Twitter that as a result it anticipated more children to die in the “care” of customs and border protection. If the Trump administration follows through on its threats, it will almost certainly end up trying to defend the indefensible in court – again.

The administration’s callous disregard for migrant children and their families has long been apparent – the monstrous family separations policy revealed as much. But even for observers primed to expect the worst from Trump’s cruel and xenophobic immigration system, recent news reports make for hard reading. While public outrage is rising over the number of deaths of people held in immigration detention, doctors are complaining that border patrol officials are confiscating life-saving medicines from adults and children, leaving diabetics without insulin and at least one boy, aged 7 or 8, without his anti-seizure drugs.

Even when, under deadlines set by the courts, immigration and customs enforcement have reunited families torn apart at the border it has done so in ways that reveal a pathological lack of empathy or humanity. It was recently reported that a group of migrant children, some as young as five, were forced to wait in vans for 39 hours before being “processed” in order to see their parents.

Such stories are both devastating and enraging – not least because of the senselessness of it all. In the past two years the Trump administration has tried again and again to devise new and cruel ways to deter people from crossing into the US, and none of them work because as an immigration policy, deterrence doesn’t work. When people are desperate enough, they will flee their homes no matter how risky a journey or how hostile a reception they face.

In May over 144,000 migrants were arrested crossing the border, a 32 per cent increase on April and the highest ever number since Trump became president. Deterrence doesn’t decrease immigration, it just increases human suffering.

A rational administration intent on reducing immigration might start examining the reasons so many people are fleeing their home countries, and might direct aid aimed at improving the livelihoods of those facing violence and hardship in Central America. Trump, of course, is doing the opposite and is wants to cut aid to these countries.

And so, we find ourselves in our current predicament: Trump’s officials keep devising inhumane and illegal ways to punish those who enter America, and still people keep coming.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.