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Analysis

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)