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The Government Is Using Information From Children to Deport Their Family Members

“This administration has already been tearing families apart; playing them against one another is a new low.”

November 28, 2018

The Trump administration is using information gathered from asylum-seeking children to arrest, detain, and deport their family members and other potential sponsors.

On Wednesday, the Brennan Center joined 111 other organizations in submitting a letter demanding the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security immediately reverse this illegal practice. The signatories included civil liberties, faith-based, immigrant rights, government transparency, privacy, and child welfare groups.

A federal agency designed to protect children is being used to deport their families

Traditionally, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has been the HHS agency responsible for uniting unaccompanied migrant children with relatives in the United States until their legal status can be resolved. However, this April, ORR quietly signed an information-sharing agreement with the entities within DHS that enforce immigration laws at the border and inside the U.S. — specifically, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This action formalized as policy a practice that began last summer of arresting family members using information from vulnerable children.

When children crossing the border are detained, ORR asks them whether they have family or friends in the United States who can take care of them. Under the currently implemented policy, however, when a parent or relative comes forward to assume responsibility for the child, every adult in the prospective sponsor’s household must provide fingerprints for a criminal and immigration background check — even when it is unnecessary for the child’s safety. This leaves the families vulnerable to arrest, detention, and deportation by ICE.

Consequently, out of fear for their own safety, some families have become too scared to step forward to sponsor children. Meanwhile, children are burdened with guilt if they understand that when they share information, they are putting their relatives at risk for deportation.

“Using the words of children to deport their own families is beyond the pale,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “This administration has already been tearing families apart; playing them against one another is a new low. I can think of nothing more cynical or more destructive. That’s why it’s time to take action. These agencies can stop this devastating practice now. No American should stand for it.”

More children are being detained and for longer periods of time

For decades, the handling of unaccompanied children in the United States was governed by a settlement called the Flores agreement, named after a lawsuit from the 1980s challenging how children were treated in immigration detention facilities. The 1997 settlement  requires the government to act in the best interest of immigrant children and to release them from immigration detention without unnecessary delay. 

Under the Flores agreement and subsequent legislation, DHS and HHS are required to limit children’s time in detention as much as possible. But since ORR’s information-sharing began, the average time children spend in federal custody has roughly doubled to more than two months on average. “That’s contrary to the spirit and the letter of the Flores agreement,” said Andrew Boyle, counsel in the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center. 

Not only are children being detained for a longer span of time, but the total number of children being detained by the government has soared from 2,400 in May 2017 to more than 14,000 in November 2018.  Many of these children are fleeing extreme political violence and have endured treacherous journeys in search of asylum, getting forcibly separated from their parents in the process.

The government’s information-sharing policy is wrong – and illegal

These practices show a callous disregard for the well-being of children, and a willingness to stoop to troubling lows to achieve policy aims that are themselves un-American. Using information from vulnerable immigrant children to deport their families is wrong. It is illegal. And DHS and HHS should end this practice immediately.

(Image: Mario Tama/Getty)