Feds reverse policy that kept immigrant children in custody

The Trump administration is reversing a controversial policy implemented this summer that immigration advocates say caused thousands of unaccompanied migrant children to remain in shelters for extended periods.

The Department of Health and Human Services is no longer requiring fingerprint checks for all adult members of a sponsor’s household when the sponsor applies to take in unaccompanied minors, a spokesperson for the agency said. Sponsors must still be fingerprinted and undergo background checks before unaccompanied minors are released into their care, the spokesperson said.

The decision to reverse the policy to the procedures in place before June is because, according to the spokesperson, HHS has determined that the checks of all household members “have generally not yielded additional information” in revealing risks to the children, and the additional checks meant children were staying in HHS care much longer.

In an email to providers obtained by CNN, HHS said, “Effective immediately, adult household members of any sponsor category do not require fingerprint background checks” unless information such as a public records check indicates additional information about household members is needed before a child is released to a sponsor.

Last spring, the Trump administration implemented new information-sharing policies between HHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement that included stricter vetting of adults who sponsor unaccompanied children. They also required the fingerprinting of everyone in the home and the sharing of that information with ICE.

While the administration said the measure was paramount to ensuring the safety and security of children, the move sent shock waves of fear through the undocumented community.

One source with knowledge says up to 3,000 children could be released by the end of the year, as a result of this reversal.

Concern has been rising at facilities due to the duration of stays for children, which has resulted in behavioral health issues including increased assaults on staff, violence among the children and an increase in children with thoughts of self-harm, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. The facilities housing them are not equipped to deal with children with these kinds of issues, the source said.

Evy Ramos, spokesperson for BCFS, the company that operates a temporary tent facility in Tornillo, Texas, voiced support for the policy change.

“The care and well-being of the children entrusted to our care is our number one priority,” Ramos said. “Anything that will safely expedite their release to family and loved ones is something we support.”

The largest provider of housing for unaccompanied children in HHS custody also welcomed the change.

“We are greatly encouraged by this. This will help all caregivers reduce the time these children stay in shelters and give them the foundation they need to thrive and prosper,” Juan Sanchez, the CEO for Southwest Key Programs, told CNN in a statement.