The Trump administration will now fingerprint and run immigration checks on the mothers and fathers who come forward to claim custody of unaccompanied migrant children stopped at the border under a new policy that is stoking new fears in immigrant communities nationwide.
The initiative implemented this week is the latest get-tough effort by the Trump administration that promised stronger vetting procedures of sponsors after drawing criticism last week for reportedly losing track of more than 1,475 children they had placed with sponsors.
In a conference call Thursday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement outlined a ORR memorandum of agreement with the Department of Homeland Security on the new procedures field specialists should follow in finding homes for unaccompanied children.
“ORR is going to begin submitting fingerprints to DHS,” an ORR policy official said on the call, according to a recording, obtained by McClatchy. “And DHS is going to do a biographic criminal check of the national database also for wants and warrants. And they’re also going to do an immigration status check. This is a big change for us to be sending the information and fingerprints to DHS.”
Under the new policy, the government would no longer provide exceptions to the parents or any other relatives. A Department of Homeland Security official told McClatchy that better coordination between agencies helps protect migrant children and reduces the risk they’ll wind up in the hands of traffickers or gang members.
But some migrant advocates worry it could deter families from claiming children, and migrant parents already appear less willing to do so. The percentage of unaccompanied youths claimed by parents has dropped from 60 percent four years ago to 41 percent in 2017 after increasing crackdowns, including raids.
“There is no humanity or decency in carrying out immigration enforcement on the backs of innocent children,” said Prerna P. Lal, a California immigration attorney.
Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, said the well-being of the child is their first priority. He said people have fraudulently claimed to be parents when there were not.
"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," Wagner told reporters in a telephone briefing Tuesday regarding concerns over the 1,400 children.
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families have been apprehended since 2014, when a surge of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan mothers and children raced into the Rio Grande valley in Texas, fleeing violence and poverty.
It is common for parents who are in the United States illegally to pay human smugglers to arrange for their children to be brought to the United States and dropped off at the border.
Unaccompanied children are turned over to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which will either care for them in a shelter or release them to a family member. The children who are meeting relatives typically know they must turn over contact information to Border Patrol officials so the information can be verified.
Last year, Health and Human Services assumed custody of more than 40,000 immigrant children and released more than 93 percent to sponsors. Of those, 49 percent were parents and 41 percent were close relatives.
This would not be the first time the Trump administration targeted parents of unaccompanied children. Last year, administration began a new surge of enforcement targeting parents who paid to have their children illegally brought to the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents now can share information with immigration agents about U.S.-based relatives of unaccompanied children. The information is being used to track down the parents for arrest.