Thousands of migrant children could be released under newly relaxed Trump policy

The Trump administration is loosening some of the vetting requirements for sponsors of migrant children, potentially clearing the way for thousands of children to be released from custody.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) late Tuesday said it will drop a requirement that everyone in a sponsor's household be fingerprinted and receive an extensive criminal background check.

HHS admitted the extensive vetting was taking too long and was not helping to improve the safety of children.

“Since the implementation of this new policy, HHS’s ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] has determined that the new checks of all household members have generally not yielded additional information that has enabled ORR to identify new child welfare risks,” the agency said in a statement. 

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Starting immediately, only the sponsors will continue to be fingerprinted and run through FBI and state databases and through Department of Homeland Security arrest records.

The administration has come under fire for the policy, which immigration advocates say has resulted in thousands of children remaining in HHS custody for longer than necessary. The requirement was first put into place in June. 

“The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents,” Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary of HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said in an interview with NPR.

Johnson told NPR there are about 2,000 children in the shelter system who are ready to be released to already vetted parents in the next 4 to 5 days. There are currently close to 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children in government custody.

Critics have also noted that HHS shares the results of its vetting process with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which can result in fewer people being willing to come forward to sponsor a child.

Sponsors are usually parents or other family members already in the United States. Many sponsors are residing in the U.S, without legal status, or have household members who are. The HHS policy of sharing fingerprints with ICE would put them at risk for deportation.

The information sharing policy will remain in place, HHS confirmed.

"The latest news from HHS is a positive step toward beginning to unravel its misguided fingerprinting policy, which has prolonged the trauma thousands of children in its custody face," Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroKey lawmaker says moment is now for legislation benefiting women The Hill's Morning Report — Negotiations crumble as shutdown enters day 17 Thousands of migrant children could be released under newly relaxed Trump policy MORE (D-Conn.) said in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday.

"Still, the heart of this harmful policy is still in place. HHS should focus on providing the best care for these children, not be used as an immigration enforcement tool by fingerprinting sponsors when there are no red flags and then sharing that information with ICE. This process endangers children and will perpetuate their detention in HHS shelters." 

Migrant children who illegally cross into the U.S. must be sent to a government shelter where they stay until they can be united with relatives or other sponsors while awaiting immigration court hearings.

The administration has been housing children in so-called influx shelters, which cost about three times as much as traditional shelters. They were meant to be temporary camps, but the migrant populations are growing.