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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.