The government says it’s being forced to turn illegal immigrant children over to sponsors who are themselves in the U.S. illegally — and many of those adults already have criminal records, leaving the kids in a precarious position.
Matthew Albence, the chief of deportations at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told senators during a hearing Tuesday that nearly 80 percent of the kids nabbed jumping the border end up being placed in households with illegal immigrants.
And he said “a large chunk” of the adults are flagged for criminal entanglements.
For illegal immigrant families nabbed at the border, meanwhile, they’re usually released together as part of the court-imposed catch-and-release practice. And nearly one-in-three of those parents quickly cuts off the ankle monitoring device meant to make sure they show up for their deportations.
That creates an impossible situation for ICE, which doesn’t have the manpower to devote to tracking down those families, Mr. Albence said.
“I simply do not have the resources to get people once they’re at large in the communities,” he told the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
He painted a bleak picture of the enforcement options open to the government as it tries to combat a new surge of illegal immigrant families and a continued steady pace of juveniles traveling alone, who are known in Washington-speak as “Unaccompanied Alien Children,” or UAC.
Democrats on the committee said they don’t want to open the borders to all comers, but bristled at administration plans to hold families in detention, calling that inhumane.
They said there are other ways to make sure illegal immigrants show up for their court hearings and when it’s time to be deported — such as ankle monitors, or assigning social workers and case workers for regular check-ins.
“We are talking about the indefinite detention of children. That’s frankly not who we are as a country, and it’s not what the United States should become,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Democrat.
There are two separate problems the government is grappling with.
One involves UAC, who began to stream into the country in large numbers in 2012, peaked in 2014, and have remained at elevated levels in the years since. Under the law and court orders, those children are quickly processed and turned over to federal social workers, who try to find sponsors for them — usually relatives such as aunts, uncles or siblings already in the U.S.
According to Mr. Albence’s new numbers, nearly 80 percent of those sponsor households are comprised of illegal immigrants.
The other problem involves parents who arrive with their children — labeled “family units,” in government documents — whose numbers are skyrocketing as they learn how to take advantage of U.S. asylum laws. The government has already set a record for families apprehended at the border, with a month still to go in the fiscal year.
The Obama administration struggled with both categories, and the Trump administration has, too.
Members of Congress were particularly worried about the UAC, who in many cases were sent to live with sponsors during the Obama years without complete background checks. The Trump administration has improved those checks, but still says its hands are tied once the children are placed with sponsors.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who has tracked the issue for years, said when the government did follow-up calls with more than 11,000 children from April to June this year, they couldn’t determine with certainty the whereabouts of 13 percent of the UAC. Twenty-five of the children were known to have run away in the first month after they were released to sponsors.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have said their hands are tied and once they send the children to sponsors, the government’s legal role is severely constrained.
And since most of the families who take in UAC have legal status problems themselves, they’re often not forthcoming about dealing with the government’s follow-up efforts.
Mr. Portman and several colleagues announced a new bill Tuesday giving the Health Department authority over the UAC even after their release, up until their deportation case is concluded. Sponsors who fail to make sure UAC show up for their cases will lose custody and the children will be taken back into the care of the health department, according to the legislation.
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, also suggested the government consider returning to a policy it had decades ago of only releasing UAC to people in the country legally.
“We tend to ‘lose children’ when they go and are placed in the home of someone who already is not legally present, who has been living under the radar for years, and we are surprised when they both disappear. This should not surprise us,” he said.
Complicating matters, some parents have sent their children to the U.S. knowing they would be abused by sponsors. A man pleaded guilty in federal court in Ohio on Mondayto his role in arranging UAC to be brought to the U.S. from Guatemala, getting the government to turn the children over to sponsors, then sending the kids out to do forced labor on farms.
Children as young as 14 were forced into 12-hour work days de-beaking chickens and cleaning coops. Their paychecks were withheld to compel them to work.
As tricky as the UAC situation is, dealing with the family units may be even tougher.
The Trump administration attempted to stem the flow of families earlier this year with its zero tolerance policy, which called for jailing parents. Since federal jails don’t accommodate families, that meant the children were separated and put into the pool of UAC, farmed out to sponsors or housed in dorms.
After a severe backlash from Democrats, Republicans, religious leaders, immigrant-rights groups and health professionals, the administration canceled zero tolerance.
Instead, it said, it would try to hold the families together in detention until their cases are completed. Homeland Security and the health department released proposed regulations several weeks ago to carry that plan out.
But Democrats and immigrant-rights groups objected to those plans, saying families must be released.
They called for alternatives such as monitoring devices or a pilot project known as the Family Case Management Program. They pointed to research suggesting the FCMP had a 99 percent success rate in getting illegal immigrant families to show up for court cases.
“We don’t have to separate their families and we don’t have to, for the first time in our country’s history, go on a building program of family prisons,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat. “That is not the right answer.”
Mr. Albence countered that both bracelets and case management haven’t worked in getting people to show up for deportations.
“We are experiencing a significant rate of absconders among the family units — three in ten family units are cutting off the ankle bracelets at the beginning of the process when released from our custody, within days or weeks,” he said.
And he also rejected the case management program as a model, saying that while the families showed up for some hearings, when it came time to deport them, they still absconded.
He also said there are more than 700,000 people on ICE’s docket, and fitting all of them with bracelets for the years it can take to complete their cases would be expensive — even if they could keep people from cutting the bracelets.
Of nearly 95,000 Central American family members nabbed by Border Patrol agents or CBP officers in 2017, 98.6 percent of them are still in the U.S. today, the government says.
And of more than 30,000 UAC nabbed, 98.2 percent were still in the U.S. as of June.