In a major reversal, the Trump administration is changing the way it reviews sponsors who want to care for migrant children in government custody, officials announced Tuesday. The changes could lead to thousands of children being released from government shelters to family members, as well as the closure of a controversial West Texas tent facility currently housing 2,700 children.
The policy change involving migrant children was the second major concession Tuesday by the Trump administration on border and immigration issues. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News earlier in the day that Trump was backing away from his vow to shut down parts of the government if Congress did not provide $5 billion for a border wall.
The most visible result of the policy change may be the closure of a controversial 3,800-bed tent facility in Tornillo, Texas, that opened in June. It originally had 400 beds, but that was expanded to 500 in August and 3,800 in September as the government had custody of an exploding number of what it calls “unaccompanied alien children,” those who are apprehended at the border without a parent or guardian. The government now has custody of almost 15,000 such children, up from 9,000 when the fingerprint policy began in June and 3,000 at the beginning of the Trump administration.
“The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents,” Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, said in an interview with National Public Radio. She was echoing what critics of the administration’s policies have been saying for months.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Trump policy—sharing fingerprints of potential sponsors with ICE, which can use them for immigration enforcement—will remain in effect, said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing HHS funding. “The latest news from HHS is a positive step toward beginning to unravel its misguided fingerprinting policy, which has prolonged the trauma thousands of children in its custody face. Still, the heart of this harmful policy is still in place,” DeLauro said. “HHS should focus on providing the best care for these children, not be used as an immigration enforcement tool by fingerprinting sponsors when there are no red flags and then sharing that information with ICE. This process endangers children and will perpetuate their detention in HHS shelters.”
Mark Greenberg, who oversaw the unaccompanied migrant children program in the Obama administration, said the continued sharing of fingerprints with ICE could mean that the release of children could still move slowly because some potential sponsors may feel they’re risking deportation by stepping forward. Prior administrations collected more limited fingerprint data from potential sponsors, and those fingerprints weren’t shared with ICE or used for immigration enforcement. “This is likely to reduce some of the pressure, but we don’t have a way of knowing how much of a difference it’s going to make because the fundamental problems that stem from ORR cooperating in immigration enforcement are going to remain in place,” he said.
The future of the Tornillo tent facility located outside El Paso wasn’t specifically addressed in the HHS announcement. HHS has a contract with the operator, BCFS Health and Human Services, that expires December 31. But Representative Will Hurd, a Republican from Helotes whose district includes Tornillo, said the bulk of the children there could be quickly released under the new policy and if the administration clears a huge backlog of sponsors who’ve already submitted fingerprints and other background materials but have been left waiting for final word. “My understanding is its 1,300 kids whose sponsors have already done everything that’s needed to get reviewed, if the kid can get released to them. Then there’s 1,100 who have a sponsor that has come forward that are waiting for the fingerprinting and this process to start,” Hurd said. The remaining children could be moved to permanent shelters elsewhere in the country while the government searches for a sponsor or works with their home country for possible return, he said.
The government will no longer require that all adults in potential sponsor households submit fingerprints that are reviewed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has used the fingerprints to arrest at least 170 people. “In June 2018, (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) put into place a new policy that required all proposed (unaccompanied alien children) sponsors and household members be fingerprinted to enhance the safety checks on residents of the UAC’s prospective home. Since the implementation of this new policy five months ago, ORR has determined the additional steps required to fingerprint all household members has had an impact on the timely release of UAC without demonstrated benefit to the safety of children after their release from ORR care,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
Going forward, only potential sponsors will be required to submit fingerprints. Before June, parents and guardians weren’t required to submit fingerprints except when background checks raised “red flags” that suggested risks to children. Other potential sponsors were required to submit their fingerprints, but not those of other household adults. Prior to June, fingerprints weren’t shared with ICE.
“The fingerprints will continue to be cross-checked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) national criminal history and state repository records and also includes a search of DHS arrest records. ORR will continue to do public records checks on all adult household members to ensure child safety,” the HHS statement said. Nothing in the statement precludes the use of fingerprints for immigration enforcement.
Critics warned that the new policy of providing fingerprints to ICE would make it more difficult to place children with sponsors, who are usually parents or other family members already in the United States. Many sponsors are themselves undocumented immigrants or have household members who are. Their immigration status doesn’t preclude them from sponsoring children, but providing fingerprints to ICE would put them at risk for deportation.
Texas Monthly reported on Saturday that BCFS was asking the Trump administration to back off the fingerprint requirements in exchange for extending the contract to keep Tornillo open. The contract expires December 31, and the government had limited options because BCFS, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, owns all the infrastructure at Tornillo and is likely the only organization equipped to run a mass shelter for children. BCFS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
BCFS CEO Kevin Dinnin told a congressional delegation that visited Tornillo on Saturday that the facility could close within weeks if the administration changed the fingerprint policy.
Costs have mounted as the number of children in government custody rapidly expanded. BCFS officials have said the government spent $144 million—about $1 million a day—to operate Tornillo between June and November. HHS Secretary Alex Azar in September authorized the transfer of $446 million from other programs—such as cancer research and Head Start—to cover the unbudgeted costs of caring for migrant children in fiscal year 2018, which ended September 31. Congress budgeted $1.3 billion for care of migrant children in fiscal year 2019, but the administration asked for another $190 million as part of funding to avert a government shutdown. DeLauro vowed that any additional funding would come “over my dead body.”