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Ending the Misuse of Immigrants’ Data

The Biden administration ended a Trump data policy used for deportations, but the reversal needs to be locked in.

  • Jesus Rodriguez
May 20, 2021
MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images/Contributor

In 2017, an Arizona resid­ent and father of two received a call from federal author­it­ies. Offi­cials from the Depart­ment of Health and Human Services wanted him to take custody of his teen­age brother, who had just unex­pec­tedly arrived in the United States after escap­ing an abus­ive uncle in Guatem­ala. The Arizonan, who was undoc­u­mented, wanted to provide a home for his brother. But he was worried that the personal inform­a­tion the govern­ment asked of him, such as his name, home address, and finger­prints, could also be used to deport him. HHS offi­cials told him not to worry, prom­ising that they were only look­ing out for his brother’s safety, not enfor­cing immig­ra­tion laws, so he did submit the inform­a­tion asked for. But later that year, federal agents used the data he gave them to arrest him, taking him away from his wife, two young chil­dren, and the recently arrived younger brother under his legal care.

The father was arres­ted because the Trump admin­is­tra­tion had ordered that inform­a­tion HHS collec­ted to resettle unac­com­pan­ied migrant chil­dren be given to the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity to flag people for deport­a­tion. In March of this year, the Biden admin­is­tra­tion announced it would put an end to the policy.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion deserves praise for taking a step toward a more humane family reuni­fic­a­tion process by ending future data shar­ing between HHS and DHS. But it must go further. DHS must purge all data it received under the Trump policy, and the White House should work with Congress to enact a stat­utory bar on using reset­tle­ment data for immig­ra­tion enforce­ment purposes to fully protect those who took chil­dren into their homes and restore confid­ence in the reset­tle­ment process.

The govern­ment must prior­it­ize easing the burden on chil­dren who have already been trau­mat­ized by danger­ous jour­neys to the border. It should not add to this trauma by arrest­ing their loved ones just as they are getting adjus­ted to their new lives in this coun­try. Already, hundreds of chil­dren now living in the United States have been affected by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s data shar­ing policy, and many more continue to live in fear that the worst is yet to come. Simply ending the prac­tice won’t fully relieve their worries. Because DHS already has their inform­a­tion, the chil­dren and their famil­ies are left only to hope that immig­ra­tion agents won’t show up at their door. Given what others have exper­i­enced, they have little reason to believe mere assur­ances.

Further, the policy hampered the smooth func­tion­ing of the refugee reset­tle­ment process by giving chil­dren incent­ives not to trust offi­cials with their would-be spon­sors’ names, slow­ing down reset­tle­ment and further crowding federal facil­it­ies. Although the Biden DHS is unlikely to continue misus­ing this data for deport­a­tions, this easily revers­ible policy shift does­n’t alone do enough to restore the confid­ence needed in the reset­tle­ment process for it to work prop­erly moving forward. As the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s policy change showed, the stroke of a pen would be all a future admin­is­tra­tion needs to hijack this old data for deport­a­tion or resume prob­lem­atic data shar­ing prac­tices. But that pres­id­ent’s hands would be appro­pri­ately tied if DHS purges the data now and Congress acts to prevent such data shar­ing in the future.

The data shar­ing under Trump under­mined HHS’s Office of Refugee Reset­tle­ment (ORR) policies that inten­tion­ally offered strong protec­tions to those who stepped up to take custody of unac­com­pan­ied chil­dren. Accord­ing to agency guid­ance from 2015, ORR only used immig­ra­tion status to keep stat­ist­ics and to determ­ine a care plan for the child in case the spon­sor was required to leave the United States because of a prior removal order. Other­wise, ORR expli­citly guar­an­teed that it “[did] not provide indi­vidual immig­ra­tion status inform­a­tion to DHS.” This policy reflec­ted Congress’s intent when creat­ing ORR under the Home­land Secur­ity Act of 2002 because lawmakers envi­sioned the agency’s mandate as advan­cing child welfare, not enfor­cing immig­ra­tion. The latter func­tion was left to DHS.

The Trump White House defen­ded the data shar­ing by arguing that it was neces­sary to ensure the chil­dren were not being released to unsafe living arrange­ments. But there was already a robust vetting process of would-be spon­sors in place. ORR already conduc­ted crim­inal history and sex-offender registry checks of some spon­sors prior to releas­ing minors to their care, and it collec­ted finger­prints if the would-be spon­sor was not the child’s parent or legal guard­ian. After the Trump admin­is­tra­tion began collect­ing finger­prints to check immig­ra­tion status, HHS offi­cials conceded that the added vetting was redund­ant and that it kept chil­dren in govern­ment custody for longer than neces­sary.

Congress tried in early 2019 to elim­in­ate the data shar­ing through an appro­pri­ations bill, but those protec­tions soon expired. As Demo­cratic congres­sional lead­ers wrote in a letter to immig­ra­tion author­it­ies that year, this limit­a­tion was “insuf­fi­cient assur­ance for poten­tial spon­sors that taking in a family member will not later be used against them.” Then-Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Ron Wyden intro­duced a bill that would have more perman­ently ended the data shar­ing in 2018 and 2019, but it never garnered suffi­cient support to pass.

In their letter, the Demo­cratic lead­ers also wrote that the data shar­ing “does noth­ing to assist in the place­ment of chil­dren to safe homes.” Abandon­ing the policy, one Biden White House offi­cial correctly said in March, “sends a really strong signal that [the] Office of Refugee Reset­tle­ment, Health and Human Services are not involved in immig­ra­tion enforce­ment.”

For the Biden admin­is­tra­tion to fully follow through on its commit­ment, DHS should scrub data to prevent a future pres­id­ent from using it for deport­a­tions.