A new federal policy will allow federal agents to investigate, and possibly arrest and deport, families who step up to host children found at the border. It’s the latest in a series of enforcement actions by the Trump administration intended to discourage a new surge in unauthorized immigrants.
The new policy was welcomed by some who see it as an important check on smugglers posing as helpers, but immigration advocates accuse the administration of using the detained children as “bait” for attracting, investigating and deporting immigrants living in the United States without authorization. Either way, it is certain to make it even harder to recruit families, usually relatives, to care for children who cross the border alone or who are separated from their parents. Authorities are preparing more shelters to house them.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will now screen families seeking to host children, including others living in the home, checking their immigration status “to identify and arrest those who may be subject to removal” — meaning deportation — the new policy states.
Previously, federal authorities might have checked immigration status as part of screening hosts, but they did not bar unauthorized relatives from hosting or share information with immigration enforcement.
More families are needed to host the children, because more migrant families are crossing the border and because the Trump administration has elected to separate children from parents to deter unauthorized immigration.
Anti-trafficking laws require the U.S. Border Patrol to turn over children found alone, or separated from parents, to relatives or other host families in the United States pending immigration court hearings.
Last year more than 40,000 children were sent from the border; they stayed in shelters on average 41 days before being placed with a host family. This year about 20,000 children have been placed with host families, with California, Florida and Texas getting the most.
The administration is “treating kids at the border as contraband to be confiscated and then turning right around and using them as bait to terrorize the community,” said Jessica DeCou, a program manager at Quixote Center, a Maryland social justice organization focused on immigration enforcement.
The Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., which provides legal advice to immigrants, also protested the new policy in a published comment, calling it a “troubling shift in the focus of the sponsor review process from child welfare and family reunification to immigration enforcement.”
“To arrest and deport capable caregivers increases the vulnerability of children to trafficking and other harm,” read the comment written by the group’s director, Jeanne Atkinson.
The number of people stopped at the border surpassed 50,000 in May for the third straight month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics, compared with a low of 16,000 in April 2017.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May announced a policy to prosecute people crossing the border, and warned that migrant children would be separated from their parents. A spokeswoman for the federal Administration for Children and Families said the agency is preparing for a backlog of children awaiting host families by setting up temporary shelters at military bases in Texas.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, called the new ICE policy “positive” during a Capitol Hill hearing in April, citing a case in Ohio that involved unaccompanied children being placed with human traffickers posing as family friends. A spokeswoman for Portman, Emily Benavides, said the Permanent Committee on Investigations, which Portman chairs, expects more information on how agencies will work together to protect children by July 30.
Increasingly, host families are losing touch with authorities once they accept children — last year almost 1,500 children could not be located, according to congressional testimony. Portman cited that as evidence that host families need more oversight. But many advocates say ICE investigations are what prompt families to go underground.
“This is certainly going to place a damper on getting the loving, caring adults we need to care for the children,” said Anu Joshi, a policy director at the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella organization for advocates in New York state.
Some advocates already had complained that host families were being targeted by federal immigration enforcement officials who were questioning children at the border. Advocates in California said families’ fear of deportation has prompted self-proclaimed friends to volunteer as sponsors. Many of them turn out to be abusive, charging children rent and forcing them to work instead of sending them to school, advocates say.
The New York City Bar Association, in a comment posted on the new policy, said that kind of abuse could become more common if host families are screened by federal immigration enforcement officials.
“This may lead family members to put their trust in third parties with lawful immigration status whose true motivation is to exploit the children,” read the comment written by Victoria Neilson, chairwoman of the association’s immigration committee.
The checks on people in the host household also will make it harder for people to help, Quixote’s DeCou said.
“If little Suzy’s aunt is a citizen but lives with her undocumented mother-in-law, she faces a tough choice,” DeCou said. “Help her niece, and she risks getting her mother-in-law deported.”