The Biden administration announced Friday it is terminating a Trump-era agreement that it said discouraged sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children, like parents or relatives, to come forward due to fear their information would be shared with immigration enforcement agencies.
The move comes amid a surge of unaccompanied children arriving at the border, which is overwhelming border facilities and has officials scrambling to accommodate them.
Children who are apprehended at the border are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, where case managers work with them to relocate them in the US with a sponsor. But a 2018 agreement between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security allowed information obtained from potential sponsors to be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement – which a Biden administration official said created a “chilling effect” where family members or sponsors were afraid of coming forward.
Friday’s move ending that policy means there would not be any immigration enforcement consequences for a family member or sponsor who looking to be united with an unaccompanied child in the government’s care.
“We are a child welfare agency, we are not an immigration enforcement agency, and this makes really clear that this administration prioritizes uniting a child with their family member or sponsor,” a Biden administration official told reporters on a conference call under the condition they not be named.
“It sends a really strong signal that Office of Refugee Resettlement, Health and Human Services are not involved in immigration enforcement,” the official added.
In recent days, the number of children in HHS custody has climbed indicating that the department is gradually absorbing the number of children crossing the US-Mexico border alone, taking them out of Border Patrol facilities unsuitable for kids and into shelters where they can be cared for.
This week there were more than 3,700 unaccompanied migrant children in US Border Patrol custody, many of them in jail-like facilities.
There are around 8,800 unaccompanied for children in HHS custody, the department confirmed Thursday, up from last week when numbers hovered around 7,700. The official said the administration is working to increase the capacity and number of beds for unaccompanied minors.
Biden has been working to strike a balance between promoting a more humane approach to immigration while still sending the message to would-be migrants not to come to the border.
The official emphasized that HHS “takes very seriously our child welfare role, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that children are not in border patrol stations for a second longer than they have to be.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.