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On Wednesday, President Donald Trump reversed his administration’s odious policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and sticking them, alone and scared, in makeshift detention centres.

The practice was unconscionable, but it has served to focus attention on the conditions to which immigrants can be subjected around the world. Our own practices warrant a reappraisal under the circumstances.

Canada detains children at its borders. According to federal statistics, 151 minors were held along with their parents in 2016-17; another 11 were unaccompanied (compared with more than 2,000 in the United States since April alone). The average custodial stay for children was 13 days.

Over all, only a small percentage of the foreign nationals who enter Canada every year are detained, for such things as lacking proper documentation, being suspected of having criminal ties, or for security reasons.

On any given day from April 1 to December 31 last year, a year which Canada saw 47,425 new refugee claims, there were between 330 and 365 people in detention in Canada Border Services Agency and other detention centres.

The majority stayed for less than 48 hours, but in Canada there are still hundreds of refugee claimants and immigrants, sometimes with children, who remain in custody for more than 90 days, and sometimes for more than a year.

Ottawa has steadily reduced the number of people detained each year, and the length of their detentions. It is also renovating its prison-like detention centres.

But too many immigrants, some with mental-health issues, still languish in provincial jails like criminals. As well, Canada has no maximum length of detention, and people can be held for up to 12 months without judicial review.

There is no question that the government must be able to detain people at the border when absolutely necessary.

But, as the situation in the U.S. has shown the world, it needs to be done with care and compassion. We can always do better, even if we are far from the cages, toddler jails and for-profit detention centres of Mr. Trump’s America.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included incorrect statistics for the number of people in detention centres in 2017. This version has been corrected.

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