Hundreds of immigrants, some of whom have been in the U.S. for years, were arrested by immigration authorities after offering to sponsor unaccompanied migrant children who have recently arrived at the border.
The arrests are the result of a highly criticized information-sharing agreement that was in place since April 2018 between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the agency responsible for taking care of unaccompanied migrant kids and finding their sponsors. The practice, however, has since ended.
During a House hearing on Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thursday, the agency’s acting director Matthew Albence, maintained that the intention of the information-sharing agreement was to keep kids safe.
“This was an attempt to try to prevent traffickers and other individuals — and they do harm to these children — from being sponsors and getting children into their custody,” Albence said during a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee. “Nearly 40% of the people that were sponsors actually had criminal records, so there were certainly calls for concern with regard to the individuals that were sponsoring the children.”
A 2016 Senate report found that more than a dozen migrant kids were released to child traffickers after the spike in unaccompanied minors that began in 2013.
Albence said that “around 330” sponsors were arrested since April 2018 as a result of the information-sharing agreement.
“We haven’t made any arrests [of sponsors] since the appropriations bill was passed, preventing us from utilizing that information,” Albence said, referring to the recently passed $4.6 billion emergency funding bill, which included a provision that forbids ICE from arresting migrants based on information it receives from HHS.
Critics said the information policy had a chilling effect on prospective sponsors, who feared being deported, and contributed to extended processing delays for unaccompanied kids in shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Last November, the average length of stay in an ORR shelter was 90 days. Several members of the administration have said that the combination of a lack of bed space in ORR shelters and an increase in unaccompanied children arriving at the border led to the overcrowding at Border Patrol stations, where children are held before being transferred to shelters, earlier this year.
Another factor may also have contributed to the recent lack of room in these shelters: CBS News reported that the government has been unable to find sponsors for more than one-third of the kids in ORR custody. Advocates worry that the information-sharing rule has prevented potential sponsors from coming forward, leaving more than 4,000 kids in limbo.
Earlier this month, several Democratic members of Congress had urged the administration to end the information-sharing policy.
“With unprecedented numbers of children in government custody, these circumstances have led to children being held in CBP facilities well beyond the allowable 72 hours and in appalling conditions,” they wrote in a letter to the secretaries of DHS and HHS.
“Historically, your Departments have not used information obtained from detained children—or families who seek to care for them—to target individuals for deportation,” they wrote. “With no limits on how this information can be used, the process for ensuring the safe placement of children could be weaponized as a tool for immigration enforcement.”
Editor's note 7/26 3:15 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that the practice of sharing information between DHS and HHS has ended.
Cover: Minors are seen as they exercise in a common area at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant children on April 08, 2019 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)