Children deserve to be safe. When they flee for their lives and come to the United States, our laws require that the government place them in safe situations, usually with family, as they pursue asylum or other humanitarian protection. But right now, the federal government is endangering children and violating federal law. AILA members are widely reporting that the Trump Administration is targeting adult relatives who have come forward to give shelter to vulnerable, unaccompanied children. The aggressive pursuit of these adult sponsors, often the children’s parents, is further indication that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is no longer prioritizing enforcement against individuals who are dangerous or pose risks to the public but instead pursuing long-time residents and people that are contributing members of the community. By going after these sponsors, who have given their names and addresses to the federal government and gone through assessments to ensure they will provide a safe home for the children they are sponsoring, ICE is jeopardizing the safety of those fleeing violence.
The legal framework for protecting unaccompanied children was established in the 1997 Flores v. Reno settlement agreement, which specified protocols for their protection and required they be released into the care of suitable adult sponsors rather than being detained unnecessarily. In the years following Flores, I worked at Legal Services for Children in San Francisco and visited hundreds of boys and girls from Mexico, Central America, and Asia who were detained in California facilities. Nearly all of them had suffered terrible physical abuse, rapes, kidnappings, and other forms of violence frequently committed by gangs or even by the police charged with protecting them. My clients included children who had no relative or guardian able to take custody of them, and as a result were stuck for months, and even years, in institutional care.
As any physician, social worker, or child welfare expert will tell you, keeping victimized children in confinement is the worst possible situation and exacerbates the trauma they may have experienced. In my experience, only those who had relatives come forward were released from government custody after a thorough screening of the adult’s background and home. In 2008, Congress and President Bush passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) explicitly requiring placement with carefully-screened adult sponsors over institutional confinement, except in limited circumstances. Current federal regulations implement the statute by mandating that federal authorities place children first with parents, legal guardians, or other relatives.
Now, ICE is shockingly turning the law and years of child welfare and human trafficking expertise upside down by going after precisely those sponsors that the law says are the right placements for children. AILA members in at least four states–Colorado, Tennessee, New Mexico, and New York–have reported that ICE investigators have appeared at the registered addresses of unaccompanied children’s sponsors and used high pressure tactics to get them to open their doors so the adults can be detained and placed in removal proceedings. ICE arrested one sponsor at the restaurant where she worked. Another sponsor was detained and had not received a custody hearing after several days. ICE officers have claimed that undocumented sponsors are themselves human traffickers, even while knowing full well that the sponsors have voluntarily come forward, have taken a personal risk by providing their information to the federal government, and are providing a safe home to these children.
If protecting children from trafficking and further harm or violence is the goal, ICE should not be separating children from their family members and disrupting their home environment. If their sponsors are detained, these children will likely be removed from the home and placed again in institutional confinement. An equally disastrous consequence of the Administration’s plan is that potential sponsors will be too afraid to come forward and children arriving at our borders will be kept long-term in detention facilities.
The battle cry of immigration hard-liners is that these sponsors are undocumented and would be granted a functional amnesty if Trump doesn’t deport them. Yet consistent polling shows the overwhelming majority of Americans support giving legal status to undocumented persons. Americans should be telling the President it makes no sense to expend finite enforcement resources to pursue these family members–and to impose millions of dollars in detention and deportation costs on American taxpayers. ICE is not only wasting taxpayer dollars, they are endangering the lives of children. That is an unacceptable and inhumane price, and it needs to end.