With immigration policy at the forefront of national debates, harsh rhetoric has transformed into even crueler realities for the most vulnerable of migrants—children who come alone to the U.S. fleeing grave violence in their home countries. Amid a pronounced shift in immigrant enforcement priorities, the U.S. government in June 2017 began targeting the parents and relatives of unaccompanied immigrant children for deportation and potential prosecution. Announced as an effort to disrupt smuggling networks and protect children, this targeted initiative has instead endangered and re-traumatized children by separating them from loved ones who have stepped forward to care for them as they await proceedings to hear their claims for protection.
This report explains how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has exploited the process for reuniting children with their families to conduct enforcement against undocumented parents and family members—the vast majority of whom have not been charged with smuggling crimes. The report describes the ways in which the disruption of reunification efforts and the separation of families undermines fundamental rights, traumatizes children, and limits access to due process. By stoking fear in communities and destabilizing families, ICE’s enforcement initiative against parents and other sponsors greatly diminishes, not advances, the protection of children, and places children at risk of trafficking or other harm.
The preservation and reunification of families is a cornerstone of domestic and international law, and child welfare practice. Family unity provides important protective benefits to unaccompanied children, many of whom have escaped extreme violence and abuse. Rather than targeting the loved ones on whom these children rely for support, the government should instead prioritize the best interests of children in enforcement decisions and work to ensure children are provided a full and fair opportunity to access legal protections.
To this end, KIND makes the following recommendations:
DHS should halt all initiatives that use information gathered during reunification attempts to target families, sponsors, or unaccompanied children for immigration enforcement. Respect for the rights and needs of children should be paramount in enforcement actions. Consistent with basic principles of child welfare practice, family relationships should be protected, absent evidence of abuse, neglect, or other danger to the child.
DHS should not use information provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is charged with the custody and care of unaccompanied children, to target parents and other sponsors of children who have been identified as safe placements. ORR requires that sponsors provide information about themselves and others living with them in order to evaluate the safety of potential homes for unaccompanied children as well as the sponsor’s ability to provide appropriate care and support. The use of this information to conduct enforcement against sponsors frustrates compliance with federal settlement authority and increases the vulnerability of children to trafficking and other harm.
DHS should conduct training to ensure that enforcement actions do not interfere with the government’s legal obligations related to the custody of children, including the Flores settlement agreement and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. Such training helps to safeguard access to due process for unaccompanied children and should be reinforced through disciplinary policies that hold accountable staff who infringe on these critical protections.
DHS should coordinate with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that children and sponsors in the family reunification process understand the distinct roles played by the two agencies.