HHS, DOJ Decisions Swell the Number of Undocumented Minors in Detention

Last week, NPR’s John Burnett told the story behind new shelters built in Texas to house the growing number of detained unaccompanied minors. According to Burnett, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is not overseeing the care of 12,800 immigrant children under the age of 18, up 2,000 from the number quoted in May by HHS. That number includes those separated from their families through the Department of Justice’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, as well as children who traveled to the United States on their own. 

The growth can in part be attributed to the conditions in Central America that prompted families to take their chances with the American legal system because they still saw it as the less threatening option, but it is also a product of a program initiated by HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) known as the “Community Safety Initiative.” It scrutinizes possible homes and guardians for detained minors with the stated goal of Scott Lloyd, Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement, to “equip [unaccompanied alien children] with the tools they need to stay safe from gangs like MS-13” and “to ensure that the [unaccompanied alien children] we release from our care do not pose a danger to our communities.”

The new vetting program requires everyone in the household, not simply the prospective sponsor, to be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check. In the current immigration enforcement climate, “that's having a chilling effect on people willing to come forward to claim their child because the sponsor and others in the household may be undocumented," says Megan McKenna of Kids in Need of Defense. Because of that program, unaccompanied, detained minors who used to remain in detention for an average of 37 days now stay an average of 59 days, swelling the total number of minor detainees in the process.

ORR’s Community Safety Initiative is grounded in ideology, not facts. The Trump Administration’s professed belief in the danger posed by unaccompanied foreign minors isn’t supported by evidence. Even the White House acknowledges that only 1.6 percent of incoming children have any history of gang affiliation.

Those who are outraged by this can do their part to keep this information in the public eye. This White House stays in a state of turmoil, and the story of the day often crowds out the less sexy, ongoing issues like this one that have yet to be resolved. People can also let their representatives know how they feel about this sort of treatment and vote for politicians who prefer a more fact-based, humanitarian approach to immigration.  

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