Sponsors of immigrant children are getting arrested — we must protect them

Sponsors of immigrant children are getting arrested — we must protect them
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Validating the fears of the immigrant community, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun arresting parents and other sponsors who agree to care for unaccompanied immigrant children. This must stop immediately.

On Sept. 18 ICE reported that it arrested 41 sponsors in the previous two and a half months, 70 percent whose only offense was being in the U.S. without permission. Because about 80 percent of sponsors are undocumented, if undocumented sponsors are not allowed to care for immigrant children, based on fiscal 2017 figures, an additional 33,998 children will stay in detention annually.

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Officials in the administration might well ask themselves: What is the greater evil — jailing children for prolonged periods of time at huge cost to the U.S. taxpayer or allowing caregivers to remain in the U.S. for a little longer to provide the care children need?

If the administration will not guarantee that it will stop going after children’s care providers then Congress should step up and support the bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives on Oct. 2, 2018 that makes it illegal to target sponsors.

The recent arresting of children’s sponsors is the latest in a long campaign by the administration to crack down on immigration and increase detention. Sponsors were already more hesitant to come forward to care of unaccompanied immigrant children when Trump came into office, due to his negative rhetoric — including explicit comments that the administration would have “zero tolerance” for anyone in the U.S. without papers — and concerns circulating in the community. According to Health and Human Services (HHS) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) data, sponsorship placement of children dropped from about 100 percent in fiscal 2017 to only 70 percent in the first 11 months of fiscal 2018, meaning that an additional 1,236 children are already staying locked up each month, or 14,828 annually.

Then, on April 18, 2018, DHS and HHS entered into an agreement, effective May 13, 2018, for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the branch of HHS that is in charge of housing immigrant children, to transfer fingerprints and other information on sponsors and other adult members of the sponsor’s household to ICE. This has contributed to doubling the amount of time from 2016 that children remain locked up, to 59 days.

Due in part to the increase in detention time, ORR has already doubled its detention capacity in the last year from 6,500 to 13,000 beds. ORR currently receives $1.3 billion annually for detaining children; however the agency is seeking to quadruple its budget, indicating that the government estimates children will be kept in detention four times as long under the administration’s new policies.

Importantly, it is unclear what happens to the child when ICE arrests their parent or sponsor. There seem to be two options. One, the child is re-detained until another sponsor can be located and screened, if possible. If no sponsor is available the child will be kept in ORR custody throughout the course of their immigration proceedings, hopefully in foster care but as numbers increase, even this moderately more humane option seems unlikely. More likely tent cities like Tornillo will continue to grow up around the country.

The other option is that the government does not re-detain children and instead leaves them living with someone else who may or may not have been properly screened, thereby defeating the purpose of the administration’s enhanced screening policy. This raises concerns of government participation in potential child trafficking or other abusive situations, and would likely constitute a violation of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.

Because under the administration’s current policies and practices children will stay locked up for extended periods of time, our government is in violation of the Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires that children be held in the least restrictive setting possible and no longer than 20 days. Such actions also constitute a violation of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, among other international treaties, that protects the human rights of children and their families to family life and personal integrity.

Not only is the administration running foul of domestic and international law, detaining children is an unnecessary and costly practice, that, According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, will cause increasing trauma to the detained, separated children.

It seems likely that as ORR is required to inform potential sponsors that their information will be shared with ICE, a lot of sponsors will continue to not put themselves forward or will withdraw from consideration. It is not that these sponsors do not want to help the children, but if providing their information simply results in ICE detaining and deporting them, they will not be able to help the children anyways and the situation will be worse than if they did nothing.

At this point, is it probably not enough for the administration to simply stop hunting down sponsors. The administration needs to take concrete action to establish trust in the immigrant community before sponsors will again step forward. The administration could agree, for example, to issue deferred action to sponsors for the course of the children’s immigration proceedings. This would have the added benefit of incentivizing sponsors to make sure children appear for their court hearings.

In fact, because children do not have the right to a government-appointed lawyer, parents and other sponsors are a crucial safeguard in ensuring that children can seek out legal counsel, as well as ensuring the child’s other needs are met such as education and medical needs. This is simply not a responsibility the government needs to take on, nor should it, considering that parents and other sponsors are better placed to look after the well-being of the children.

Should the administration fail to act, Congress can step in to halt sponsor arrests by supporting the bipartisan bill currently under discussion or, better yet, pass legislation giving temporary non-immigrant status to parents and other sponsors of immigrant children going through immigration proceedings. It is time to stand up for immigrant children.

Sara Ramey is an immigration attorney and the executive director at the Migrant Center for Human Rights in San Antonio, Texas. The views in this article are not intended to reflect the official position of the organization.