In order to entrap families once they come forward to claim minors who have been detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration is using information coaxed out of the traumatized children who have been forced to enter government custody, according to more than 100 national groups that denounced the practice on Wednesday.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday, 112 groups—including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Legal Aid Justice Center—demanded that the administration stop using information obtained during interviews that all 14,000 children currently in U.S. custody undergo upon entering detention centers, to find, arrest, and deport their family members in the United States.
"This is the reality: Your agencies are taking scared, jailed children who are desperate to see their families, asking them to identify their relatives so that they can be reunited—and then using that data to find, arrest, and deport those families." —112 rights groupsThe groups argue the administration is violating children's and immigrants' rights as well as privacy laws by extracting and using the information this way.
"Children are being turned into bait to gather unprecedented amounts of information from immigrant communities," Becky Wolozin, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, told the Associated Press.
Thanks to an information-sharing agreement signed by the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) just before the administration's family separation policy went into effect last spring, DHS has access to family information gleaned from children which it can cross-reference with fingerprints that all potential family sponsors must turn over to the agency before children can be released into their custody. DHS is using the fingerprints to determine family members' immigration status.
As Common Dreams has reported, the use of the fingerprinting system has caused fewer families to come forward to claim children, leaving their young family members languishing in detention centers for months on end and causing the number of children in U.S. custody to explode. This has prolonged a crisis that human rights groups and child welfare experts have decried as a "moral and medical catastrophe," wrote the groups—one that will "cause irreparable harm," and carry "lifelong consequences for children."
So far, more than 40 family members have been arrested and threatened with deportation based on information shared by the two agencies, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"Asking detained kids to identify relatives in the US, and then using that information to deport and separate families, is immoral, illegal, and objectively bad policy. End the Parent Trap." —Erica Posey, Brennan Center for Justice
Regardless of how the agency heads may have rationalized the practice, the groups wrote, "This is the reality: Your agencies are taking scared, jailed children who are desperate to see their families, asking them to identify their relatives so that they can be reunited—and then using that data to find, arrest, and deport those families."
In some cases, according to the letter, children have been led to believe that the information they share about their family members would not be used against the family.
On social media, advocates who signed the letter drew attention to the system, calling for an end to what they called the Trump administration's "Parent Trap."
112 NGOs agree: This is illegal. This is wrong. Stop the #ParentTrap.
When loved ones come forward to take a child home, @HHSGov is quietly handing over their data to @ICEGov for deportation. Dozens of loved ones have been arrested. This is abominable.https://t.co/DoecQY83Ov
— Harrison Rudolph (@harrisonsethdc) November 28, 2018
This can't be said enough. Asking detained kids to identify relatives in the US, and then using that information to deport and separate families, is immoral, illegal, and objectively bad policy. End the #ParentTrap. #FamiliesBelongTogether https://t.co/ZCH1zKA4uq
— Erica Posey (@posey_erica) November 28, 2018
We witnessed unimaginable atrocities at the border this weekend – yet terrible treatment does not end when people cross the border. It’s time to protect all immigrant children and #KeepFamiliesTogether. #ParentTrap https://t.co/uiRzzMLDAb
— ADC National (@adctweets) November 28, 2018
Meanwhile, the AP obtained a memo on Tuesday showing that all 2,100 staff members at a detention camp for teenage migrants were able to work without submitting to criminal background and fingerprint checks—making oversight of children's own families far more rigorous than those for people charged with supervising children in the facility.