“It could be chilling to sponsors who are guardians or parents but are undocumented, but who are in the best position to take care of and receive their children,” said Ashley Feasley, director of migration policy and public affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group provides shelter and foster care for unaccompanied migrant children and tries to reunite them with relatives.
“We’re in a climate of fear,” Feasley added, “and obviously if you’re going to put new conditions on sponsors coming forward, they are going to be more hesitant to come forward.”
‘A chilling effect’
The proposed change is raising even more concerns since Attorney General Jeff Sessions instituted a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adults who cross into the country illegally. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents upon arriving in the U.S. under the policy, with the children ending up in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, along with children who traveled to the U.S. alone.
Currently, when the Office of Refugee Resettlement identifies potential sponsors for these children, the office runs a background check on the sponsors, which can include FBI fingerprint checks. But the office has not been actively sharing the results of these checks with ICE, said Paige Austin, a staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, a civil rights organization.
Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, did not respond to requests for comment.
The new policy, in contrast, would directly involve ICE in the process. ICE would run an immigration status check on potential sponsors, as well as anyone living in their home, and advocates fear ICE will use that information to identify immigration violations or share the information with local authorities.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement “previously had made clear that immigration enforcement was not the purpose of the background information they were collecting,” Austin said, “and that’s changing now.”
Jennifer Podkul, policy director at Kids in Need of Defense, which represents migrant children, said the proposed policy is “already creating a chilling effect.”
“We’re already hearing of families who aren’t willing to come forward anymore because they don’t want to put their family at risk,” she said.
What previously mattered was not the sponsors’ immigration status but whether they were able to keep the children safe, enroll them in school, get them an attorney and make sure they showed up in court, Podkul said.
She is particularly concerned about how the policy will affect the increasing number of children in government custody as their parents are prosecuted. From May 6 to May 19, 658 children were separated from their parents at the border, an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Congress recently, and the U.S. government is struggling to find room to house them.
“These children will have experienced a difficult, by any standard, and in some cases very traumatic journey,” Podkul said, “and they will have seen their parents forcibly separated from them.” The last thing those children need, Podkul said, is to remain in federal custody longer than necessary because their relatives are afraid to step forward to claim them.
The reasoning behind the rule
Trump administration officials have said the purpose of the new policy is to more thoroughly vet sponsors to prevent the children from being trafficked, as well as to increase information-sharing between agencies.
When asked about the proposed rule, the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, referred to a transcript of a May 29 news teleconference with HHS Acting Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner.
“I think we do an excellent job now,” Wagner said of vetting sponsors. “But with DHS’s cooperation, we will conduct a fingerprint-based background check on every sponsor to further ensure that there’s never an incident of kids being released into human trafficking rings.”
To highlight trafficking risks, Wagner has cited a 2014 case in which several unaccompanied minors were released from government custody and then forced to work on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio.
When asked during the teleconference if the new policy could prevent children from being claimed by their families, Wagner pushed back.
“If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they’re concerned about their own immigration status, I think that de facto calls into question whether they’re an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person,” he said. “Plus, we have the problem of people fraudulently claiming to be parents when, in fact, they’re not.”
DHS declined to respond to questions about whether the proposed policy would be used for immigration enforcement.
Austin, with the New York Civil Liberties Union, disagreed with Wagner’s assessment of what makes a good sponsor.
“The fact that people are concerned about civil immigration enforcement does not mean that they cannot be a safe sponsor for a child,” she said.