In recent weeks there has been a spotlight on the horrors of the Administration’s forcible separation of children from their parents at the border. In taking these children away from their parents, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials render the kids “unaccompanied”. As a consequence, border agents send these children to another agency, Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR is the federal agency responsible for the care and custody of unaccompanied immigrant children--whether those children originally arrived alone, or were later torn from their families by immigration officials.
Less attention has been paid, however, to another recently enacted policy that puts the children in ORR custody at risk -- an agreement between ORR and DHS to have Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--the immigration police--check the immigration status of any potential sponsor of an unaccompanied immigrant child.
Existing federal laws require ORR to promptly release each unaccompanied child in its care to the “least restrictive setting” that is in his or her best interests. Child welfare experts and the Supreme Court agree that the best place for a child is with her family, above all with a parent. Despite this universal consensus and ORR’s statutory mandate, the Trump Administration is taking steps that will prevent children from reunifying with their families.
The new agreement between ORR and DHS is a significant roadblock to ORR’s mission to protect child welfare.The agreement puts in place mandatory immigration status checks for any adult raising her hand to come forward and care for an unaccompanied immigrant child and any adults living with that potential sponsor. As a result, parents and family members who may be undocumented or live with others who are undocumented will fear that coming forward to care for a child will result in deportation.
In justifying this policy as protective of children, Administration officials impugn, without evidence, the ability of undocumented parents and others to be appropriate caregivers for children. DHS’s own official proposal to implement this new system reveals the policy’s true purpose, one divorced from child welfare: to identify and arrest all undocumented sponsors. For this Administration, lip service to child protection is a handy shield for practices that use children as bait to ensnare their family members.
At the same time, Administration officials are using this same new agreement between ORR and DHS to expand the role of immigration enforcement in ORR’s day-to-day care of unaccompanied children in its custody. In a marked departure from its purported child welfare focus, ORR must now report a broad variety of information on individual children in its custody to ICE. This will include, for example, information about young children torn from their parents at the border who, as a result, manifest their extreme distress by biting and trying to run away. DHS, therefore, will have the power to harm children twice over: first by tearing them from their families, and second by using their developmentally typical behavioral reactions against them in their immigration cases.
The bottom line is that for this Administration, immigrant children are either burden or political tools, but not children. This is an unacceptable erosion of our humanity and our American values, which is why the National Immigrant Justice Center fights every day to document these harms and advocate for reform.