The Biden administration is ending a Trump-era policy that saw undocumented people arrested by immigration officials when they came to collect children who had travelled to the US alone.
The policy allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to provide immigration officials with information on potential sponsors of children who come to the US-Mexico border seeking asylum in the US, and in rolling it back, the Biden administration also increased resources to allow for a massive influx of such children to be properly cared for by HHS.
Administration officials on Friday announced the termination of a 2018 Memorandum of Understanding between the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection agencies, under which ORR — the agency legally responsible for the care of unaccompanied minor children who come to the US seeking asylum — permitted ICE and CBP to perform legally required background checks on anyone attempting to claim children in HHS custody.
“We are really celebrating the termination of this MOU today,” a Biden administration official said during a briefing with reporters Friday morning. “It sends a really strong signal that Office of Refugee Resettlement and Health and Human Services are not involved in immigration enforcement.”
Going forward, the official said there will not be “consequences for a family member or sponsor who come forward to be united with an unaccompanied child in our care” because ORR “is a child welfare agency … not an immigration enforcement agency”.
“This makes really clear that this administration prioritises uniting a child with their family member or sponsor,” the official continued.
Under US law, unaccompanied children who come to the US seeking asylum are supposed to be placed in the custody of ORR until sponsors or family members come forward to care for them.
Until the agreement between HHS and DHS was put in place, required background checks for potential sponsors were conducted by HHS officials, who under law are charged with acting in the best interests of the children in their care. But the Trump-era policy put DHS immigration officials in charge of running those background checks and collecting fingerprints of those who came forward to claim unaccompanied children in HHS custody.
The information collected was often used to single out potential sponsors for arrest and deportation.
The Trump-era policy “really created a chilling effect where family members and sponsors were afraid to come forward for fear of being deported,” the official said, particularly since roughly 90 per cent of children under HHS care are placed with a family member or sponsor.
“Whatever we can do to encourage those family members and sponsors to come forward more quickly, we need to be doing,” they said, adding that the Biden administration is “working together in a whole of government approach, not just to undo what the last administration did in this regard, but really using an interagency collaboration to positively impact child welfare”.
The 2018 agreement was just one of a plethora of policies enacted by former President Donald Trump’s administration, in service of his goal to end almost all immigration from South and Central America. Under Mr Trump, many longstanding US laws and policies pertaining to the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers were either reversed or ignored when they could not be reversed.
The result, according to another administration official, was “a broken immigration system that was exacerbated by the prior administration,” which “wasted billions of dollars on a wall and separating children”.
“These measures were not effective, and they did not adhere to our values,” the official said.
President Joe Biden has made reversing the Trump-era immigration policies and reforming the immigration system a priority for his administration. Earlier this month, Mr Biden sent a comprehensive immigration reform proposal to Congress for consideration, though it is unlikely to garner enough Republican support to meet the 60-vote threshold required to pass in the Senate.
Since Mr Biden took office and began reversing many Trump-era policies, there has been a new influx of unaccompanied children seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border, though the official took care to note that “the vast majority” of people coming to the border seeking asylum are still being turned away under a proclamation signed by the former president last year at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It invoked the authority of the Centers for Disease Control to turn away migrants for health reasons.
But the sheer number of unaccompanied minors coming to the border, combined with Trump-era cutbacks in resources for processing asylum seekers, has created a deficit in personnel and space that the Biden administration is trying to rectify.
“We are not in a place where we are going to be able to meet the demand that we are seeing,” the official explained, but they added later that HHS is “aggressively adding hundreds of beds by the week to our care provider network” as well as looking for “short-term, interim solutions to ensure that minors spend as little time in custody as possible”.
Currently, the official said the average length that a child stays in HHS care is 37 days, with a median of 24 days.
But HHS is taking steps to lower that amount of time, including putting ORR staff at Customs and Border Protection facilities in order to gather information on potential sponsors from children who are being processed before they are placed with ORR.
“That’s going to shave hours – if not days – off of our process to ensure that we’re uniting those children with their family members on through those quickly as possible, and that we’re ensuring that that placement is in the best interest of the child,” the official said.
While the Biden administration is still working to ramp up its’ ability to process migrant children, the official predicted that the end information sharing between DHS and HHS will reduce the time children spend in HHS facilities by making sponsors more likely to come forward.
“There will not be immigration consequences for coming forward and taking care of these kids…we believe this will have a real impact on people trusting us,” they said.
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