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A Salvadoran migrant father holds the hand of his 3-year-old son in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in June 2018. Photo by Jose Lui...

What changes to this fingerprinting rule could mean for migrant children in U.S. custody

The Trump administration announced late Tuesday that it was relaxing its vetting process for potential sponsors who want to take care of a migrant child in U.S. government custody.

The Department Health and Human Services announced it was dropping a requirement the agency established nearly six months ago: requiring fingerprints from all of the adults in a household seeking to care for a migrant child who arrived at the border alone and is currently under government care. The government said the change was initially implemented to “enhance the safety checks” into sponsors.

From now on, only parents and other potential sponsors will have to submit fingerprints; other adults in a sponsor household won’t need to.

In an interview with NPR, Lynn Johnson, an assistant secretary at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, said the extra vetting procedure was “not adding anything to the protection or the safety of the children.”

Advocates said the fingerprint requirement slowed down the placement of unaccompanied minors with sponsors, a concern that was pointed out when the policy was first introduced.

“The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents,” Johnson told NPR.

Here’s what the policy reversal could mean for the more than 14,000 migrant children under U.S. custody.

Thousands of unaccompanied minors will be released to sponsors in the coming days.

An HHS spokesperson told the PBS NewsHour that the policy change would affect more than 2,000 migrant children currently in government custody.

The sponsors for this group of migrant children had already cleared the background check, the official said, adding that the hold up was over other household members being reviewed.

Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refugee Commission joins the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz to explain why the fingerprint change is an improvement and what challenges still remain. Video by PBS NewsHour

The government is expected to release these 2,000 or so migrant children to sponsors in the coming days.

The larger fingerprinting requirement remains in place.

Tuesday’s announcement zeroed in on just one aspect of the vetting process for adult “sponsors,” a category that includes parents or family friends who can take custody of the child in the U.S.

Other parts of the vetting process, much of which has existed for years, will remain in place. This includes:

  • Submitted fingerprints will be cross-checked with the FBI’s criminal records and the Department of Homeland Security’s arrest records.
  • The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees children in U.S. custody, will do public record checks on all adults in a given household “to ensure child safety.”
  • The Department of Health and Human Services will do mandatory home visits in certain cases before a child is released to a sponsor. Those cases include children with disabilities, children who are victims of trafficking, and sponsors who “clearly” present a risk, among others.

Why did the fingerprint requirement became a contentious topic?

HHS first rolled out the fingerprinting requirement in June, amid mounting criticism over an increase in migrant family separations that followed the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. A separate string of lawsuits have since forced the reunification of many of the more than 2,600 migrant children who were affected by the “zero tolerance” policy, which called for the federal government to criminally prosecute all adult migrants caught entering the country illegally.

But the New York Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government in November over the delays in placing unaccompanied migrant children with sponsors, something advocates pinned on the fingerprinting process.

The change resulted in a “very significant increase in how long it took people to be fingerprinted and how long it took for those fingerprints to be processed,” said Paige Austin, of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Around that same time the Trump administration introduced the fingerprinting policy, it also agreed to share information about potential sponsors and their children — such as their names, and dates of birth — with immigration enforcement authorities. That also included fingerprints.

In its lawsuit, the NYCLU claimed the requirement made some adults who could step forward as sponsors more hesitant to provide fingerprints that would be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, out of fear that the information could put them at risk of being deported.

The government released data last week showing that immigration authorities arrested 170 people who had wanted to claim a migrant child in U.S. custody between early July and late November.

“There’s a very major fear and deterrent factor here even beyond what those numbers reflect,” Austin said. The NYCLU has seen cases of families being deterred from trying to get a child out of custody,” Austin said, “and in other cases, taking much longer to get a child out of custody due to fear of immigration enforcement.”

Advocates have noted that many sponsors — or other adults in a potential household — have been undocumented immigrants themselves. Adults are able to sponsor migrant children regardless of their immigration status.

What does this mean for how long children stay in government custody?

The government acknowledged in a statement Tuesday that since the implementation of its fingerprint requirement, it has “generally not yielded additional information that has enabled ORR to identify new child welfare risks,” and that “the time which all household members take to submit fingerprints affects the length of care” for the children.

The latter point is significant because advocates have criticized the Trump administration for the growing length of time migrant children have spent waiting to be released from the government’s 100-plus shelters across the country.

According to numbers provided by an Health and Human Services spokesperson, the average of length of care for migrant children in fiscal year 2018 was 60 days. The official added that the number was 90 days for the month of November. For comparison, under former President Barack Obama, the length of stay hovered around 30 days.

“Moving forward, ORR will provide a real time monthly update in addition to an overall average length of care update on a quarterly basis,” the spokesperson said.

What will happen to Tornillo, the largest migrant shelter in the country?

There’s a record number of migrant children — around 14,300 — being held in the government shelters across the country. More than 2,000 of them are being held at the Tornillo shelter in west Texas. It’s the largest migrant shelter operating today.

But as the number of detained migrant children increased, so has scrutiny of the Tornillo facility, which was originally meant to serve as an emergency spot for holding the unaccompanied minors.

The spike in children detained at Tornillo and the growing length of the stays has prompted concern from advocates over the children’s well-being.

The budget for Tornillo has ballooned, too, and is expected to continue to grow as the facility remains open.

The Trump administration has yet to determine if Tornillo will remain open past Dec. 31.

READ MORE: The Tornillo shelter for migrant children was supposed to close after 30 days. Here’s why it’s still open