Trump's 'zero tolerance' at the border is causing child shelters to fill up fast
Families who illegally crossed the Mexico-U.S. border turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents near McAllen, Tex., on May 9. (Loren Elliott/Reuters) May 29 at 7:41 PM Email the author
The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administrationâs âzero toleranceâ crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.
Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.
Under the âzero toleranceâ approach rolled out last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children remain in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.
Those shelters are at 95 percent capacity, an HHS official said Tuesday, and the agency is preparing to add potentially thousands of new bed spaces in the coming weeks. HHS also is exploring the possibility of housing children on military bases but views the measure as a âlast option,â according to the HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agencyâs preparations.
HHS has about 1,300 reserve beds to accommodate more children, the official said, including several hundred at a government-owned building in Homestead, Fla., adj acent to an Air Force base previously used as a Labor Department training center.
In a statement, Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for HHSâs Administration for Children and Families, said that the agency has âan existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states,â and that âadditional temporary housing is only sought as a last resort when current locations are reaching capacity.â
The latest figures do not distinguish between minors who arrive without a parent and those who are separated from their mothers and fathers after they cross the border. But an official for U.S. Customs and Border Protection testified at a Senate committee hearing last week that 638 adults were referred for prosecution between May 6 and May 19 under the new zero-tolerance effort and that they brought 658 children with them.
As the s cope of the family-
separation measures becomes clearer, President Trumpâs immigration advisers pushed back Tuesday at false or misleading stories about their policies that circulated widely on social media over the weekend. Many seized on reports that HHS âlostâ 1,475 children last year, describing them as âmissing.â
But those reports were based on misleading characterizations of a follow-up phone survey conducted by HHS when it attempted to reach the adult sponsors of migrant children 30 days after releasing them to sponsors.
HHS does not have a formal responsibility to track children once they are released to sponsors. Agency officials say that is the immigration court systemâs job. And because many adult sponsors, including parents, are living in the country illegally, they may fear contact with federal officials.
âIn the last fiscal year, in 14 percent of those calls, the family didnât answer the phone,â a top HHS official, Steven Wagn er, told reporters Tuesday. âBut thereâs no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids. If you call a friend and they donât answer the phone, you donât assume that theyâve been kidnapped.â
Migrants look through the border wall in Tijuana, Mexico, on April 29. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/AP)
Trump officials also gave new details Tuesday about an agreement between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security that immigrant advocates warn could further increase the number of children in federal custody and how long they stay there.
The agreement will give Homeland Security more access to the personal information of parents, relatives or other adult sponsors seeking custody of the children.
In the past, that information was largely walled off for the purposes of immigration enforcement while the sponsors we re vetted by HHS, out of a concern that Homeland Securityâs involvement could have a âchilling effectâ on parents living in the country illegally and discourage them from claiming the kids.
But under Trump, senior officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have recommended such measures to deter parents from attempting to send for their children while knowing they can get custody with little fear of deportation.
Wendy Young, president of the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense, said Homeland Security is âinjecting a law enforcement approach into this system,â one that will strain HHS bed space.
Homeland Security officials declined to say Tuesday whether the information will be used to target parents for arrest and deportation, characterizing the new measures as an effort to protect children.
âIf somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because theyâre concerned about their own immigration status, I think th at de facto calls into question whether theyâre an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person,â Wagner said.
âPlus, we have the problem of people fraudulently claiming to be parents when, in fact, theyâre not,â he added, saying the agreement would give the agency better tools to check sponsorsâ backgrounds and verify their identities.
In recent months, the average time children spent at HHS shelters has increased from 51 to 56 days, according to the agencyâs latest statistics. Last year HHS took custody of more than 40,000 migrant children, and the agencyâs Office of Refugee Resettlement said it released 93 percent to adult sponsors. In half of those cases, the adult sponsor was one of the childâs parents, and another 40 percent were close adult relatives.
Jonathan Rath Hoffman, chief spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, described the Trump administrationâs determination to prosecute parents as a continuation of Obama-era measures.
âThis policy has not changed from the prior administration,â he said.
In 2016, more than 20 percent of those who crossed the border illegally faced criminal charges, according to Homeland Security data. During President Barack Obamaâs second term, the government prosecuted roughly 70,000 cases per year.
Trump critics say that claim is specious and obfuscates the current administrationâs break with standard practice.
âWhatâs happened is the exception to the rule is now becoming the rule,â said Young, who said prosecutions under Obama were far more selective. âHere theyâre doing zero-tolerance policy to punish families and send a message to their home countries: Donât do this.â
âItâs so disingenuous to couch this as a continuationâ of Obamaâs policies, said Young. âThis is the most aggressive response to Central American migration weâve seen to date.â
Trump has lashed out at Nielsen and other aides because the number of people illegally crossing the Mexican border has spiked, robbing his ability to campaign on promises of improved border security.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly first floated the idea of separating families last year, calling it a tool to discourage migrants from attempting the journey. More recently, he caused an uproar when he appeared to dismiss expertsâ warnings that separating children from their parents inflicts emotional and psychological damage to the kids, saying theyâll âbe taken care of â" put into foster care or whatever.â
In a tweet Saturday, Trump portrayed the family-separation measures as a tactic to arm-twist his opponents.
âPut pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from there [sic] parents once they cross the Border into the U.S.,â he wrote.
âTrump called the practice âhorrible,â so if he thinks itâs so horrible he ought to end it and not make children pawns as a negotiating tool,â said Lee Gelernt, an immigration attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a class-action lawsuit to force the government to stop separating families at the border.
âLittle kids are begging and screaming not to be taken from parents, and theyâre hauled off,â Gelernt said. âParents are telling their older kids, âBe brave, be brave.â
âItâs as bad as anything Iâve seen in 25-plus years of doing this work,â he said.Source: Google News