Lawsuits Allege ‘Grave Harm’ To Immigrant Children In Detention

The Trump administration’s treatment of more than 10,000 immigrant children held in custody at shelters across the nation is coming under intense scrutiny. Numerous lawsuits claim the government is using the system of child confinement as a way to punish and deport kids and their families.

At least four federal lawsuits have been filed since March that challenge the way the government cares for child migrants. The legal actions allege that the administration is ignoring a federal mandate to place immigrant children “in the least restrictive setting available.”

Advocates for the migrant children say they are being locked up for months when there are family members already living in the United States ready to take them into their homes. Most of the underage migrants are teenagers who trek to the U.S. border from Central America alone or without a parent or legal guardian. They say they’re fleeing violent street gangs in their home neighborhoods and most of them ask for asylum. They are allowed to live with sponsors while they await their day in immigration court.

On Friday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit that accuses the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of working in concert with immigration officers to “facilitate civil immigration enforcement against sponsors.”

The lawsuit lays out what critics have been saying for months: When family members step forward to take a migrant child into their household, ICE agents will arrest the sponsor if they’re in the country unlawfully. According to lawyers, in the past year, 170 willing sponsors have been arrested and put into deportation proceedings.

While the enforcement actions satisfy ICE’s stated aim to arrest any unauthorized immigrant its agents come across, lawyers say the effect has been to scare potential sponsors from coming forward, which leaves some migrant children languishing in ORR-contracted shelters. Some have been confined since last summer.

On Friday, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., released an internal Department of Homeland Security memo, dated December 2017, that proposed a Memorandum of Understanding between ORR and ICE. It was formalized in April, four months later. The memo anticipated that the arrests of sponsors “would result in a deterrent effect” on family members who may have paid a smuggler to bring a child to the border. The memo uncannily predicted the current outcome:

“However, there would be a short term impact on HHS where sponsors may not take custody of their children in HHS facilities, requiring HHS to keep the UACs [Unaccompanied Alien Children] in custody longer.”

Mary Bauer, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the ORR-ICE arrangement uses “children as bait to catch the sponsors and put them into removal proceedings. We know that because they’ve put it in writing and said that they’re doing it.”

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John Burnett