Earlier this year, the federal agency tasked with caring for asylum-seeking children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border officially took on a new, little heralded role: helping to deport relatives of the young migrants.
In a Wednesday letter to the heads of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security, 112 civil-liberties and immigrant-rights groups, child-welfare advocates and privacy activists are crying foul, demanding an immediate halt to what they call an illegal practice.
HHS and DHS are using information on U.S.-based relatives and other potential sponsors obtained from detained children to "arrest and deport those families," the authors complain. Already, they write, "families have become too scared to step forward to sponsor children."
The new role for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an HHS unit that works to reunite unaccompanied migrant children with relatives until their legal status can be resolved, began under an information-sharing agreement it quietly signed in April with immigration enforcement agencies in DHS.
Fingerprints and personal data from would-be sponsors and members of their households were then fed into a DHS database originally intended to track criminal histories — but revamped in May to aid immigration verification, government documents show.
Wednesday's letter complains that federal, state and local authorities — and some foreign governments — have virtually untrammeled access to that database, which could subject law-abiding potential sponsors to unwarranted scrutiny.
Federal officials say the information-sharing aims to protect the migrant kids from traffickers and other abuse. But since it began, the average time children spend in federal custody has roughly doubled to more than two months.
Worse, child-welfare advocates say, the arrangement has made unwitting snitches of the children themselves — most of them Central Americans fleeing some of the world's most violent, lawless nations.
"Children are being turned into bait to gather unprecedented amounts of information from immigrant communities," said Becky Wolozin, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which signed the letter. The center is representing immigrant children in a federal case in Virginia that challenges the information-sharing as arbitrary and capricious.
Neither the refugee-resettlement office nor the Homeland Security Department responded directly to questions from The Associated Press about whether the arrangement violates legal protections for unaccompanied migrant children, which require they be held by authorities the shortest possible time.
At least 41 relatives and household members in the country illegally have been arrested for deportation by ICE based on the data-sharing, Matthew Albence, a top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, told a September congressional hearing. An ICE spokesman said the arrests occurred from early July to early September but did not provide an updated number, which the AP requested.
Democratic lawmakers in both houses of Congress — Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida — have introduced legislation that would prohibit DHS from using information obtained in screening potential sponsors in deportation proceedings.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued earlier in November to end the mandatory fingerprinting of potential sponsors and household members instituted with the information-sharing. The group blames the practice for delays in releasing migrant children that has contributed their growing numbers in custody — now officially around 14,000, the largest number in U.S. history.
Bob Carey, who ran the resettlement agency for nearly two years until January 2017, said the average time in custody for unaccompanied children "hovered around 33 days the entire time I was there." Now it's closer to 70 days, HHS says.
Trump administration officials show no signs of budging.
The AP asked the Office of Refugee Resettlement how the new policies square with its mission to place children as quickly as possible with relatives or other sponsors. The office did not respond directly, but in an emailed reply called the longer stays "a symptom of the larger problem, namely a broken immigration system that encourages them to make the hazardous journey."
Previously, the resettlement office only collected fingerprints of prospective sponsors in very specific circumstances, Carey said — most often in the case of unrelated adults volunteering to sponsor children. He said a study he once commissioned found fingerprint checks to be more trouble than they were worth, as few applicants had a record of legal offenses. Those that turned up were nearly all traffic violations, he said. By contrast, none of the 2,100 staffers at a Texas tent city currently holding more than 2,300 teenage migrants have had to submit to the FBI's rigorous fingerprint background checks, which detail any histories of child abuse or neglect, an HHS inspector general's memo published Tuesday revealed.
In his September appearance before Congress, Albence of ICE justified the information-sharing on law enforcement grounds. The agency said just over 80 percent of would-be sponsors were in the country illegally.
Albence was not asked about the revamped database and its expanded use for tracking U.S. residents suspected of being in the country illegally.
That system now includes among its records the fingerprints and personal data of prospective sponsors. The ICE tool lets law enforcement agencies ask about the immigration status of individuals arrested, subject to background checks or "otherwise encountered."
Harrison Rudolph of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School says it effectively puts prospective sponsors in an "active queue" for deportation because their case files appear prominently when ICE enforcement agents open the database.
One database entry belongs to Rosa Caceres, a 45-year-old Honduran whose 12-year-old grandson was separated from his father in May when the two crossed the border at San Ysidro, California, and applied for asylum.
The father was immediately deported. The grandson, who had identified his mother's body (his parents were separated) after criminals killed her in Honduras in September 2016, was held at a group home in Baltimore for three months before moving in with his grandmother.
"He couldn't sleep at night, thinking 'My God, what's going to become of me?'" said Caceres, a construction worker. "The feelings of desperation, he said, made him feel asphyxiated."
Caceres says she's been in the U.S. for 16 years and hopes to obtain legal residency. As a Honduran, she has an official temporary immigration status that she's seeking to make permanent. The grandson is now a 6th grader happy with school and running track, she said.
Caceres is aware that the data she provided to take in her grandson could one day be used to deport her.
"It's frightening, but in the end, when it's family you overcome the fear," she said. "There was nothing I could do but confront the reality, come what may."