The United States is returning some unaccompanied migrant children arrested on the US-Mexico border to their home countries under new coronavirus guidelines, a move the Trump administration has up until now been unable to do.
Earlier this month, at the direction of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security began suspending entry of all migrants “seeking to enter the US without proper travel documentation” for both the northern and southern border. Migrant children arrested by Border Patrol without a parent or guardian were initially exempt.
Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS, said in a statement Monday, however, that minors could be included, meaning children who arrive alone at the border could be sent to their origin country instead of turned over to the Health and Human Services Department, which is typically charged with their care.
“When minors are encountered without adult family members, CBP works closely with their home countries to transfer them to the custody of government officials and reunite them with their families quickly and safely, if possible,” CBP said in a statement to CNN, noting that there are exceptions, like if an agent suspects trafficking or sees signs of illness. Children who are exempted will be sent to HHS.
The Trump administration has been trying to deport unaccompanied children from non-contiguous countries shortly after arrest, arguing that the system as is encourages illegal immigration and the exploitation of children. Those attempts, though, have been unsuccessful. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act dictates how migrant children who arrive alone are to be handled.
But against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, the administration is trying to move forward with some of its most restrictionist policies that have struggled to be put into practice, including the quick expulsion of unaccompanied children.
Over recent days, HHS noticed a drop in referrals from DHS, which takes children into custody before turning them over to HHS. HHS funds a network of more than 100 facilities, where migrant children who arrived to the United States without a parent or guardian are provided care until they’re released to a sponsor in the country.
“Until this last week, we really hadn’t seen anything that was inconsistent with patterns,” an HHS official told CNN. On Sunday, the department only received four referrals from DHS, which the official called “very rare.”
One care provider that works with HHS hasn’t received any referrals for the last three weeks, according to a source familiar with intakes.
While illegal border crossings are significantly down, the low referral rate raised alarm immigrant advocates, lawyers, and lawmakers.
In a letter to acting Homeland Security Chad Wolf Monday, Democratic lawmakers called reports of children being quickly removed “deeply troubling” and called on the department to “stop this practice immediately.”
“We have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of these children,” wrote Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Dick Durbin of Illinois, along with Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York and Zoe Lofgren of California.
“Children do not have to be put in harm’s way to protect us from the coronavirus pandemic,” they continued. “DHS has the ability and capacity to protect both these children and the public.”