WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is changing the way it reviews sponsors who want to care for migrant children in government custody — backing off a requirement that all people in the house are fingerprinted.
The fingerprint requirement began in June amid the zero-tolerance policy at the border that led to the separation of some 2,400 children from their parents. The children taken from parents were placed in shelters until a sponsor, often a parent or other family member, could be found and evaluated before releasing the children to that sponsor.
But the addition of fingerprinting has slowed the process and clogged the shelters. Some potential sponsors have said they couldn't get people in their homes to be fingerprinted because they were afraid. The information is shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and officers have arrested some 170 sponsors and others on immigration violations using the fingerprint data.
More than 49,000 children crossed the border alone during the 2018 budget year. While overall number of children coming to the U.S. is down from a high in 2016, minors are staying in shelters longer and the total number of children detained at once is at an all-time high. The average length of time that children spend in shelters has increased from 40 days in fiscal year 2016 to 59 in fiscal year 2018, according to federal data. There are currently more than 14,000 children in 137 government shelters around the country.
Austin, Texas-based Southwest Key Programs operates facilities to hold immigrant children in Arizona, California, and Texas, including one facility in an old Walmart. It has greatly expanded its operations this year as more children have been held for longer periods.
"We are greatly encouraged by this," Juan Sanchez, the agency's chief executive officer, said of the change. "This will help all care givers reduce the time these children stay in shelters and give them the foundation they need to thrive and prosper."
U.S. Health and Human Services officials say fingerprints will still be required for sponsors and will be cross-checked with the FBI databases and U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrest records.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that manages the children, will do public-records checks on all adult household members. Fingerprints for those adults will still be required in certain circumstances, including if the records check uncovers disqualifying factors, like a history of child abuse, a documented safety risk for the child or the child is especially vulnerable.
The requirement change could result in the release of many more children from the centers. A series of tents that opened in June to house older children in Tornillo, Texas, was to close later this month. The space originally had 400 beds, but it expanded twice and now holds roughly 2,700 minors. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mark Weber, said on Tuesday afternoon that the agency had yet to make a decision about whether Tornillo will close by year's end.
Health and Human Services officials say their focus is the health and safety and best interest of the child, and they treat that responsibility with care.
But Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was unmoved by the policy shift.
"Rather than prioritizing the well-being and safety of children, the Trump administration continues to use them as bait to round up and deport their family members," he said in a statement.
During the zero tolerance policy over the summer, Health and Human Services was not accustomed to managing families with children who came to the border and had no system in place to track families together. The parents were criminally charged with illegal entry. Because children can't go into criminal custody with their parents, they were separated at U.S. Border Patrol facilities.
The Border Patrol must transfer children to Health and Human Services custody within 72 hours, and if parents returned before then, they were reunited with their children. If not, they became unaccompanied minors who stay in shelters are given access to education, food and health care and exercise.
The summertime separations resulted in worldwide outrage, and President Donald Trump stopped the separations. A federal judge required the government to reunite the families.
Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, California, and Nomaan Merchant in Houston contributed to this report.