Last Friday, the Trump administration rolled out a new “surge initiative” that authorized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to arrest parents and other relatives who hire smugglers to bring their children into the U.S.
McClatchy DC initially broke the news, reporting that parents of recently arrived children were receiving knocks on their doors by immigration agents asking about the children and demanding to be let in. Parents were detained by ICE if they opened the door. Some parents who refused to answer that knock were later arrested when they left their homes.
A field specialist with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency that takes custody of unaccompanied immigrant minors when they first cross the border, told McClatchy DC that “the kids are basically being used as bait at this point.”
Historically, when unaccompanied minors are apprehended at the border, Customs and Border Patrol would turn them over to the ORR to initiate cases for their asylum or deportation – a process that can take months or even years. While the child awaits their time in court, many of them are placed with parents or relatives who are already living in the country and often were the ones who paid smugglers to assist in getting their children into the U.S.
In the past, these adults were generally not priorities for arrest, even if they were in the country illegally.
Immigration lawyers and advocates say that it is in the best interest of the child to have them in custody with a parent or relative versus housed in an ORR facility, at the taxpayer’s expense.
The 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement — a legal agreement that outlines federal responsibilities to undocumented children in federal custody — states that juveniles be released from custody without unnecessary delay to a parent, legal guardian, adult relative or an individual designated by the parent. A ruling last week from United States District Court Judge Dolly Gee reiterated those mandates and ordered the Trump Administration to address poor conditions at ORR facilities and other federal policies that are in violation of the Flores Settlement.
Back in February, the Trump administration warned in a Homeland Security memo that unaccompanied minors would be an equal target of deportation along with undocumented adults and that “regardless of the desires for family reunification, or conditions in other countries, the smuggling or trafficking of alien children is intolerable.” The memo details that any individual involved with bringing children into the United States illegally could be brought up on criminal charges.
Although the Trump administration states that it aims to “disrupt and dismantle” human smuggling organizations through these efforts, parents, not the smugglers, seem to be the targets of the policy.
In a call last week, Washington, D.C.-based immigration advocacy groups explained that Customs and Border Patrol is sharing information from interviews with unaccompanied minors crossing the border with ICE to identify undocumented parents and relatives to target them for detention and deportation.
“These are children, refugees fleeing gang violence, sexual violence, and rape from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala,” said Cory Smith with Kids in Need of Defense. “Children as young as 9 are victims of gang rape. Their home countries are unable to protect them. The parents are doing whatever they can to get their child to safety. These children are already traumatized and will be re-traumatized again as a result of these raids.”
Advocates reported that they are seeing decreasing numbers of sponsors stepping forward to claim children. Jessica Jones with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service stated that, prior to January, in 90 percent of cases that their organization handled, sponsors stepped forward to claim children. From January to May, that number has dropped to 30 percent.
Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles, points out that this new crackdown on parents and families has larger implications than just separating families.
“One of the biggest problems with this suggestion from the administration is that it gives an incentive for families to go outside of the people most appropriate to be involved in getting their children, out of fear of criminal prosecution,” Toczylowski said. “In some cases, children have fallen into the hands of real traffickers and abuses – exactly what the administration says they are trying to avoid.”
Advocates are pushing the federal government to refocus the policy on actual smuggling networks and ensuring other means of protections for families in desperate need of asylum from the violence in their home countries.
“They [unaccompanied children] know the dangers of crossing the border,” said Michelle Brané with Migrant Rights and Justice. “One of the children I interviewed told me, ‘I either make the journey and risk dying or I stay in Honduras and die for sure.’”