The Trump administration announced Tuesday that it would limit a policy instituted this year that preceded at least 170 immigration arrests and contributed to a dramatic spike in migrant children being held in government custody. But it’s keeping in place a key information sharing agreement that activists say inappropriately involves Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the child welfare process.
The policy, put in place earlier this year, initially required that everyone in the household of potential sponsors for so-called “unaccompanied alien minors” — children who were arrested at the border without a parent or guardian — be fingerprinted before children could reside in the household. The policy also allowed for the fingerprint data to be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to be used for immigration arrests.
Texas Monthly first reported that the Department of Health and Human Services, which takes custody of undocumented children, was limiting the policy: Now, only potential sponsors must be fingerprinted, not everyone in a potential sponsor’s household.
Still, the revised policy is harsher than it was before the Trump administration: Prior to this year, parents and guardians sponsoring their children out of government custody would only be fingerprinted if a background check raised a “red flag,” Texas Monthly reported.
And, crucially, HHS official Lynn Johnson told NPR that “the rule change would not affect an agreement whereby HHS shares sponsor information with Immigration and Customs and Enforcement,” in NPR’s words. That information sharing agreement did not exist before this year, and many activists see it as the Trump administration’s effort to turn a child welfare agency, HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, into a law-enforcement one.
A spokesperson for HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, the office Johnson leads, later confirmed with TPM that “yes,” the information sharing agreement will continue.
“HHS should focus on providing the best care for these children, not be used as an immigration enforcement tool by fingerprinting sponsors when there are no red flags and then sharing that information with ICE,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) told Texas Monthly Tuesday upon hearing the news.
“In June 2018, [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] put into place a new policy that required all proposed [unaccompanied alien children] sponsors and household members be fingerprinted to enhance the safety checks on residents of the UAC’s prospective home. Since the implementation of this new policy five months ago, ORR has determined the additional steps required to fingerprint all household members has had an impact on the timely release of UAC without demonstrated benefit to the safety of children after their release from ORR care,” HHS said in its statement Tuesday, announcing the change.
The statement added: “The fingerprints will continue to be cross-checked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) national criminal history and state repository records and also includes a search of DHS arrest records. ORR will continue to do public records checks on all adult household members to ensure child safety.”
ICE made at least 170 immigration arrests in the second half of 2018 of undocumented immigrants who had volunteered to house otherwise unaccompanied children; most of the arrests were of individuals who had no criminal record.
Experts and advocates also blamed the policy for the record-breaking build-up of children in government custody: According to Texas Monthly, almost 15,000 unaccompanied minors are in the government’s custody now, up from 3,000 at the beginning of the Trump administration. Thousands of those children currently live in a tent city in Tornillo, Texas. Texas Monthly reported Saturday that the tent city’s operator, BCFS Health and Human Services, had pressured the administration to change the fingerprinting policy.
The Trump administration was well aware that the fingerprinting policy could lead to a spike of children in its custody: In May, on a conference call with administration officials that touched on the policy, NBC News’ Julia Ainsley noted that it could discourage some potential sponsors from volunteering, given the new exposure to arrest and deportation.
Steven Wagner, then the acting head of HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, was dismissive.
“If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they’re concerned about their own immigration status, I think that, de facto, calls into question whether they’re an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person,” he said.
[Pictured above: FABENS, TX – JUNE 21: Sante Fe, New Mexico Mayor Alan Webber looks through a gate after being told he could not cross through to the tent facility setup at the Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry as he joins with other mayors from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to call for the immediate reunification of separated immigrant families on June 21, 2018 in Fabens, Texas. The Trump administration built a tent facility next to the Tornillo-Guadalupe port of entry to house immigrant children separated from their parents after they were caught entering the U.S. under the administration’s zero tolerance policy. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)]
This post has been updated.