Detaining Immigrant Youth: Disability Rights at the Border

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Detaining Immigrant Youth: Disability Rights at the Border

April 2019

Lynn Murphy

By Lynn Murphy (@_lynnsanity)
Center for Health and Social Policy Ambassador

The past year has brought heightened attention to the treatment of immigrant children at the U.S. border, as the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy meant separating families at the border and detaining children. The administration’s policies of detainment continue to pose a threat to immigrants, particularly children with disabilities, who often require specialized services and treatment. These children have been separated from guardians and caretakers and placed in facilities with little to no oversight.

Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and TVPRA of 2008, within the first 72 hours of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) detaining a child, custodial responsibility must be transferred to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). According to­­ the Office of Refugee Resettlement, DHHS is required to complete a variety of assessments and individual care plans for each child and is subsequently responsible for appropriate provision of every child’s education and health services.

These services come in an array of shapes and sizes, including provision by third parties; but limited oversight and lack of public access to these facilities has clearly become a problem. Media coverage has highlighted the consequences of family separation and detention of children with disabilities, including reports of abuse and substandard care. Several of these cases are summarized in this article by The Outline. For example, The Texas Tribune interviewed a woman who was separated from her grandchild, who has epilepsy and Autism and is still detained across the country. In another case, a Texas detention center has been accused of rampant abuse, including the forced injection of psychotropic drugs, through a class-action lawsuit.

These reports raise obvious issues of oversight and accountability. Children with disabilities are a vulnerable population that require more protection, which the current system is clearly unable to provide. Protection and Advocacy systems (P&As) have been granted access to immigrant detention facilities and are investigating the conditions for children with disabilities. These groups are now voicing concerns. With increased reports of abuse, neglect, and lack of services, the federal government needs additional assistance in securing the rights of immigrant children, particularly those with disabilities. Increased accountability in the form of robust monitoring by external agencies, including protection and advocacy groups, would aid in protecting these rights. Additionally, increased public reporting by CBP and DHHS would increase accountability of these agencies to the public. If the United States is to fulfill its responsibility of protecting children with disabilities, including immigrants in its custody, reporting and monitoring must improve.


Lynn Murphy is a second-year Master of Public Affairs student and CHASP Ambassador at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in Political Science and Sociology before moving to Austin. A former special education teacher for Austin Independent School District, Lynn also worked in the nonprofit sector before joining her class at the LBJ School. She continues to be passionate about policy issues including disability rights, especially through the lenses of education and human rights. After LBJ, Lynn plans on pursuing advocacy in the policy realm for vulnerable populations, including students with disabilities.

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The views, information, or opinions expressed by blog contributors are solely those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health and Social Policy, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, or The University of Texas at Austin or affiliated employees.