New U.S. rule will make it harder for immigrant children to reunite with families, advocates fear

Josselin Contreras and two of her younger brothers were lost and thirsty, wandering alone on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, when Customs and Border Patrol officers caught them in the summer of 2014.

Contreras, then 16, and her brothers, then 9 and 12, had fled El Salvador in the hopes of finding their parents, who had left for the United States with their oldest son a year before to escape gang threats. Now, after a grueling 1,500-mile weeks-long journey, Contreras and her two brothers thought U.S. authorities would finally reunite them with their parents.

Instead, the three siblings were taken to a U.S.-run shelter in San Benito, Texas, where they were held with other children who had also arrived in the U.S. alone.

“I was wondering if the trip was worth it,” Contreras, now 20, said, “because at the end that’s why I did it, to see our parents again and to have a better life. I didn’t know if all of that was going to happen.”

The Contreras siblings were eventually reunited with their parents after about seven weeks in the shelter — but that’s an outcome that could soon become increasingly rare. Immigrant advocates fear a new proposal by the Trump administration will make it more difficult for young migrants to connect with relatives who are already in the U.S., leaving a growing number of children in shelters and foster care.

The proposed Department of Homeland Security rule, which is expected to go into effect after the public comment period ends on Thursday, would allow immigration authorities to examine the criminal background and legal status of anyone who steps forward to sponsor unaccompanied migrant children — usually parents or close relatives already in the U.S. — as well as any other adults living in their home. The rule would also allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement to collect biometric data, such as fingerprints, of the sponsors and other adults in the home.

The proposed rule has alarmed some immigration advocates who say it will force parents in the country illegally to choose between stepping forward to claim their children and protecting themselves from possible deportation.

“It could be chilling to sponsors who are guardians or parents but are undocumented, but who are in the best position to take care of and receive their children,” said Ashley Feasley, director of migration policy and public affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group provides shelter and foster care for unaccompanied migrant children and tries to reunite them with relatives.

“We’re in a climate of fear,” Feasley added, “and obviously if you’re going to put new conditions on sponsors coming forward, they are going to be more hesitant to come forward.”

‘A CHILLING EFFECT’

The proposed change is raising even more concerns since Attorney General Jeff Sessions instituted a “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all adults who cross into the country illegally. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents upon arriving in the U.S. under the policy, with the children ending up in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, along with children who traveled to the U.S. alone.

Currently, when the Office of Refugee Resettlement identifies potential sponsors for these children, the office runs a background check on the sponsors, which can include FBI fingerprint checks. But the office has not been actively sharing the results of these checks with ICE, said Paige Austin, a staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, a civil rights organization.

Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, did not respond to requests for comment.

The new policy, in contrast, would directly involve ICE in the process. ICE would run an immigration status check on potential sponsors, as well as anyone living in their home, and advocates fear ICE will use that information to identify immigration violations or share the information with local authorities.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement “previously had made clear that immigration enforcement was not the purpose of the background information they were collecting,” Austin said, “and that’s changing now.”

Jennifer Podkul, policy director at Kids in Need of Defense, which represents migrant children, said the proposed policy is “already creating a chilling effect.”

“We’re already hearing of families who aren’t willing to come forward anymore because they don’t want to put their family at risk,” she said.

What previously mattered was not the sponsors’ immigration status but whether they were able to keep the children safe, enroll them in school, get them an attorney and make sure they showed up in court, Podkul said.

She is particularly concerned about how the policy will affect the increasing number of children in government custody as their parents are prosecuted. From May 6 to May 19, 658 children were separated from their parents at the border, an official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Congress recently, and the U.S. government is struggling to find room to house them.