From [WashPost] With a record number of migrant children and teens in U.S. government custody, the Trump administration is easing screening of potential sponsors, a change officials say will speed the release of minors from shelters that are nearly full.
By dropping a six-month-old requirement that all people living in the home of a would-be sponsor submit fingerprints to the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services says it may be able to send thousands of migrant youths to relatives or other temporary guardians by Christmas.
The amount of time children are spending in HHS facilities has grown dramatically in recent months — averaging 90 days as of November — mostly because it is taking the government longer to find and vet sponsors. HHS says the fingerprinting of all members of a household, ordered in June, had “generally not yielded additional information that has enabled [officials] to identify new child welfare risks.”
But the government is keeping a second, equally controversial policy that advocates say also has slowed the release process: allowing HHS to share information about those they are screening with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Between July and late November, ICE arrested 170 individuals suspected of being in the country illegally as a result of information that came from sponsor-related background checks. The majority did not have criminal records, ICE said (being in the country illegally is a civil violation).
Immigration lawyers and advocates say the information-sharing arrangement — and the arrests — have had a chilling effect on sponsors, leaving children in federal custody longer, and in some cases indefinitely, if no one comes forward to claim them.
The number of children in federally funded shelters and facilities has climbed to 14,600, up from approximately 9,200 when President Trump took office two years ago, HHS officials said. The system’s current capacity is 16,000 beds.
Most of the children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone, or with adults who were not relatives, often fleeing poverty, corruption and violence and in many cases planning to seek asylum here.
“Anyone who has interacted with a child in detention knows there is no way to overstate the ongoing suffering they experience and how profoundly damaging it is for them,” said Neha Desai, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. She said she has interviewed children who were so traumatized by being held that ultimately they chose to return to dangerous situations in their home countries rather than pursue immigration claims.
A total of 50,036 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody after crossing the border in fiscal 2018, the third-highest total ever, but significantly fewer than during the mass surges of 2014 and 2016. The average time in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody rose to 60 days in fiscal 2018, compared to 48 days in 2017.
The youths are processed and sent to shelters that are scattered across the country. Some facilities also housed the 2,500 children separated from their parents at the border last spring as part of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy. The chaos involved in reuniting those families preoccupied HHS officials throughout the summer, and at times took priority over processing minors who had crossed the border on their own.
An overflow facility that opened this summer in Tornillo, Tex., now houses 2,800 teenagers, up from 1,500 in October, and there is room for 1,000 more. On average, minors spend 33 days there, living and attending classes in heated tents.
The contract with the nonprofit that runs the facility — yards from the Mexican border — expires Dec. 31. HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer declined to say whether it would be extended or renegotiated. [MORE]