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New Immigration Policies Could Keep Unaccompanied Children In Shelters Longer

Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
Stefania Arteaga scans fingerprints and conducts background checks for potential sponsors.

Government numbers from May show nearly 12,000 minors are in shelters after being apprehended at the country's southern border. That number has grown under President Trump's zero tolerance policy, which aggressively prosecutes more border-crossers and has separated immigrant children from their parents. 

President Trump moved to end family separation, but other policies under his administration could prohibit reunification and keep children in shelters longer.

Stefania Arteaga scans the fingerprints of around 20 people per day who hope to provide a home for children and teenagers until their cases are heard in immigration court. Most of them are family members. She’s set up a small table with a computer and the machine that scans fingerprints. She demonstrates how it all works.

“I have to tell them to relax and to not press against the machine so hard or your fingerprints will be too dark,” Arteaga said.

Arteaga works with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, which provides legal aid to immigrants. It’s part of a network that runs the required background checks and takes fingerprints for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR. The office has placed 565 minors with sponsors in North Carolina so far this year, with 141 in Mecklenburg County.

Credit Jessa O'Connor/ WFAE
Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy contracts with ORR to fingerprint potential sponsors.

Sponsors don’t have to be in the country legally to qualify for custody, but they do have to provide a lot of information about themselves.

Arteaga has to fill out an online form with potential sponsor’s physical description, like their hair color, eye color and height. Sponsors also have to provide their immigration status, address, employment information and criminal history.

Arteaga used to be able to assure potential sponsors that she wouldn’t share their information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

But that changed in April, when a new policy allowed ICE and other law enforcement agencies to access that information. In addition, a rule established in June also requires all adults in the sponsors’ household to be fingerprinted and allows ICE to use that data to check everyone’s immigration status.

Arteaga now has to explain those changes and said potential sponsors’ reaction is fear.

“Usually, if you have really sweaty palms, it makes a halo on the scanner,” Arteaga said. “So I’d grab their hands and sometimes it would shake.”

Arteaga said of the twenty or so potential sponsors she now fingerprints daily, one or two will back out due to fear of deportation.

Homeland Security and ORR officials say the purpose isn’t deportation, but safety. Over the past few years nearly all of the minors crossing the border alone are teenagers from countries overwhelmed with gang violence — like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In Congressional testimony in May, Assistant Secretary Steve Wagner — who oversees ORR — said the goal of stricter vetting of sponsors is to protect unaccompanied minors (which he calls UACs) from gangs.

“UACs are at risk of recruitment into potential gangs, not only posing a risk to themselves but to their communities,” Wagner said in his testimony. “ORR has implemented a number of interventions for UACs and their sponsors designed to address the risk of gang involvement.”

Credit U.S. Senate
Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families Steve Wagner addresses congress on May 23, 2018.

Wagner also said the office recently learned of some minors released to sponsors in New York who got involved with gangs, but he didn’t give specifics.

Wagner’s explanation doesn’t make sense to Diane Eikenberry of the National Immigrant Justice Center. She said there were problems with properly vetting sponsors in the past, but those were taken care of. She said the recent changes that allow ICE to access sponsors’ information are unnecessary.

“After many years of this process working a certain way and being improved when deficiencies were noted, suddenly now they’re saying we need ICE in this process,” Eikenberry said. “Under previous administrations, there was a deliberate choice not to involve ICE for fear that it would have a chilling effect.”

Eikenberry said the effect of the policy changes is that, “more children will languish in detention for longer.”

Even before the recent policy changes, ORR was having a harder time finding sponsors for minors. The average length of time a minor stays in an ORR shelter rose from 51 days in 2017 to 57 days in 2018.

Under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, more immigrants are being detained and prosecuted with the federal crime of “illegal entry.” That means more children — some who were separated from their families at the southern border — are being placed in ORR shelters, and are needing sponsors to take custody of them.

Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is seeing the impact of "zero tolerance," Arteaga said. In recent months, the center has seen a dramatic uptick in potential sponsors to meet the increased need. They fingerprinted 168 people in April alone. In April 2017, they fingerprinted 12. But since the policy change, Arteaga said people have been confiding in her about the risk.

“Most people will say, I don’t have a choice. That’s my brother. That’s my sister. That’s my son,” Arteaga said. “They’re in a very tough situation where they put themselves in jeopardy to attempt to protect their loved ones.”

Arteaga said the overwhelming majority go through with the process, but said she understands the fear that drives some people not to. 

Jessa O’Connor was an assistant digital news editor and Sunday reporter for WFAE.