WASHINGTON, D.C. - Eight immigrant rights organizations filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of Inspector General today on behalf of some of the 400 people swept up this summer in a DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operation. The operation used unaccompanied immigrant children who were trying to reunite with their families to identify and target their relatives who live in the United States. The organizations are calling for an investigation of civil rights violations against eight individuals whose stories are described in the complaint.
The complaint details how ICE officers misrepresented their objectives and coerced young immigrants during the agency’s “surge initiative” from June to August 2017. The operation sought information about the immigration status of parents and other relatives who came forward to sponsor unaccompanied children. Officers then used that information to locate or lure family members to ICE offices, where they were arrested and detained. These actions, the groups say, undermine U.S. laws governing the treatment of unaccompanied children. Those laws include the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, as well as individuals’ due process rights and right to family unity, protected by the U.S. Constitution. The operation also contravenes U.S. obligations under international and domestic refugee law.
“DHS has weaponized children’s longing for safety and their families’ desire to protect them,” said Diane Eikenberry, associate director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), who coordinated the complaint. “In its ongoing efforts to break up families, DHS officials have threatened children, misled their caregivers, and denied them fundamental constitutional protections. This deliberate and systematic campaign to use children as bait to ensnare their parents and relatives punishes children for seeking refuge with their families and punishes their families for offering them protection. NIJC calls on the Inspector General and the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to hold DHS accountable for its misdeeds and severely misguided policies.”
Among the cases described in the complaint:
- Before a mother was able to reunite with her minor daughter who had recently arrived at the U.S. border, ICE officers entered her home, arrested, and detained her. She has since been released and reunited with her daughter, but as a result of this turmoil lost her job and her home.
- A single mother was called to an interview with DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations, in which she was baselessly accused of smuggling her daughters into the United States—despite the fact that her daughters are not in the United States. During the interview, the agents refused to provide adequate interpretation and attempted to separate the mother from her attorneys. At the conclusion of the interview, the woman was given an order to appear in immigration court, where she now faces deportation. Her pre-teen son has suffered severe anxiety since the incident and fears that each day when she leaves him at school, she will not return.
- A woman who is the primary caretaker for four children, including a kindergarten-age U.S. citizen with severe medical issues, was interviewed by Homeland Security Investigations after she was approved as a sponsor for her niece, who had arrived alone in the United States. After the interview, agents admitted to the woman’s attorney that the agency had no information about her case, but had been given a list of names and told to “go after them.”
In addition to investigating the allegations documented in the complaint, immigrant rights advocates call on DHS to cease enforcement operations targeting caregivers of unaccompanied immigrant children, and to stop interfering with safe placements and child reunification efforts of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. The complaint asks the Inspector General and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to hold individual agents accountable for unlawful or improper conduct and to release the results of their investigations publicly, along with recommendations for reform.
Attorneys are available for media interviews about some of the cases described in the complaint. The individual complainants have asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation and protect their families’ safety. To request an interview with an attorney, contact Tara Tidwell Cullen, communications director at NIJC.
Advocates who participated in the complaint offered the following statements:
“Stripping children of the support of their parents or sponsors who provide for them while they wait for their asylum claims to be heard is bad policy,” emphasized Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “More importantly, it also endangers children – by leaving them potentially without a caretaker, they are more vulnerable to exploitation by predators, including smugglers and traffickers. To use children as bait and use misrepresentation and vulnerability to accuse parents who are trying to save their children’s lives of smuggling is an intentional misapplication of protection laws and damaging to children and families. ICE’s actions are intended to interfere with family unity and prevent children from reaching safety.
“Using kids as bait to target parents and other family members for immigration enforcement contravenes the most basic child welfare principles,” said Jessica Jones, policy counsel at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). “Children deserve protection, not exploitation.”
“These ICE operations reflect an appalling disregard for the importance of keeping children safe and preserving families,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC). “Not only do ICE and other agencies of Homeland Security misrepresent themselves in order to obtain information about the families of children, these efforts ensure that vulnerable minors will continue to be separated from their relatives. How is it in America’s safety interests to keep these boys and girls in government-run shelters while their families are flung into chaos and potential deportation?”
"DHS is using and abusing the child protection apparatus to go on fishing expeditions to try to deport families,” said Lauren Herman, staff attorney at Make the Road New Jersey. “Their lack of respect for due process and the constitutional rights of immigrant communities is deeply disturbing and must be held to account. Children and the families who try to protect them deserve to have their fundamental rights upheld to the fullest extent of the law."
“Targeting sponsors of children who are seeking safety in the United States is not only extremely traumatizing to the children, it is poor policy as children would remain in extremely expensive detention centers while their immigration cases proceed,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). “It will also drive sponsors away, leaving children extremely vulnerable to predators and human traffickers.”