Kamala D. Harris

United States Senator for California

Sens. Harris, Feinstein, and Colleagues Raise Concerns over Trump Administration’s Targeting of Parents and Relatives of Unaccompanied Children Fleeing Central America

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Senators Express Concern to Sec. Kelly, AG Sessions, and Sec Price Over Reports of “Surge Initiative”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Led by Senators Kamala D. Harris, a member of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Dianne Feinstein (both D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, 22 Senators sent a letter to DHS Secretary Kelly, Attorney General Sessions, and HHS Secretary Price to raise concerns over reports that the federal government has begun a “surge initiative” targeting the parents and relatives of unaccompanied children fleeing hardship and violence in Central America. The Senators highlight a number of alarming consequences that could result from this policy and its adverse impact on public safety and U.S. citizen children. 

“The purported objective of this initiative is to disrupt and dismantle human smuggling operations, yet the Administration has provided very little information as to how these operations are being carried out and against whom,” wrote the Senators. “In reality, this initiative does not make our country safer, but instead, exposes children to prolonged detention and separation from their families. This includes an adverse impact on mixed-status families, where U.S. citizen children may be separated from their parent or guardian and placed in the child welfare system. We strongly oppose this misguided policy that takes resources away from addressing true public safety threats and hurts children.”

In the letter, the Senators outlined a number of questions for the Administration to answer regarding this policy including documentation of the implementation, the total number of unaccompanied children affected by the initiative that have been returned to ORR custody, transferred to ICE custody, placed in a family residential facility, placed with a child welfare agency, or been removed from the United States, and more guidance on ICE’s overall role in this process.

In addition to Harris and Feinstein, the letter was signed by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Patty Murray (D-WA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Al Franken (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Cortez-Masto (D-NV), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

The letter is supported by more than a dozen leading faith, immigration, and kid advocacy groups such as UnidosUS, Kids in Need of Defense, Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, US Provinces and the Women’s Refugee Commision, and MomsRising.

 

The full letter can be found below and here.

 

July 21, 2017

 

The Honorable John Kelly

Secretary of Homeland Security

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Nebraska Avenue Complex

3801 Nebraska Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20528

 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

United States Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

 

The Honorable Tom Price

Secretary of Health and Human Services

Department of Health and Human Services

200 Independence Avenue, SW

Washington, D.C. 20201

We write to express great concern over reports that the federal government has begun a “surge initiative” targeting the parents and relatives of unaccompanied children fleeing hardship and violence in Central America. 

The purported objective of this initiative is to disrupt and dismantle human smuggling operations, yet the Administration has provided very little information as to how these operations are being carried out and against whom.  In reality, this initiative does not make our country safer, but instead exposes children to prolonged detention and separation from their families. This includes an adverse impact on mixed-status families, where U.S. citizen children may be separated from their parent or guardian and placed in the child welfare system. We strongly oppose this misguided policy that takes resources away from addressing true public safety threats and hurts children.

The use of unaccompanied children to ensnare parents and relatives will have far-reaching consequences for the health of children and further amplifies the fear that current enforcement practices have spread across immigrant communities.  Many of these children have fled horrific conditions in their home countries.  Threatening to keep them separated from their loved ones in a country they do not know is cruel and senseless.  By making parents or relatives fearful of presenting themselves as sponsors, this policy could put these vulnerable children at greater risk of being targeted by human traffickers, smugglers, or others seeking to do them harm. 

Additionally, this policy will lead to the prolonged detention of children held in custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).  Pediatric studies have noted that detention of immigrant children has negative effects on mental and developmental wellbeing.  As a DHS advisory committee concluded last year, detention “is never in the best interest of children.”

We are also troubled by the potential impact of this initiative on mixed-status households and U.S. citizen children, particularly in cases of family separation.  Considering that this policy could also lead to the placement of certain minors in the child welfare system, it is imperative to understand what procedures are being followed to ensure the proper care of children as a part of these enforcement actions. 

Given these concerns, we ask that you provide answers to the following questions to our offices no later than July 31, 2017. 

  1. Provide copies of any guidance, memoranda, or other documents your agencies have produced with respect to the implementation of the surge initiative targeting the sponsors of unaccompanied children.
  2. How many total individuals have been arrested as part of the surge initiative?  Provide information on the state in which each individual was arrested, whether the individual was a Category 1, 2, or 3 sponsor, the individual’s immigration status and information on whether the individual is currently detained or has been removed from the country.  For individuals that are in detention, provide information on the type of facility where that person has been detained.
  3. Provide information on what policies and procedures are being followed with respect to the care and custody of unaccompanied children or U.S. citizen children affected by the surge initiative. 
  4. Provide the total number of unaccompanied children affected by the initiative that have been returned to ORR custody, transferred to ICE custody, placed in a family residential facility, placed with a child welfare agency, or been removed from the United States.  In any of these arrests were U.S. citizen children separated from a parent or legal guardian and if so, how many?
  5. In cases involving unaccompanied children who remain in ORR custody due to the arrest of a parent or relative as part of this initiative, what steps, if any, are being taken to find a suitable backup sponsor?  How many children remain in ORR custody due to the arrest of a parent or relative and what is the average length of stay for those who remain in custody? 
  6. Have any children been released to backup sponsors?  If so, please provide information on whether the child was released to a Category 1, 2, or 3 sponsor.
  7. Provide information on the number of individuals arrested as part of the surge initiative who have been charged with human smuggling, human trafficking, or any other federal crimes.  What guidance has been provided to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and/or federal prosecutors in these cases?
  8. As part of the initiative, what steps are your agencies taking to comply with the requirements of the Flores settlement agreement regarding the detention and release of unaccompanied children?
  9. What steps are being taken to ensure the confidentiality of children’s personal information as part of the surge initiative?
  10. What kind of information does ICE have access to via the Unaccompanied Alien Child (UAC) Portal?  Does ICE currently share information it obtains from the UAC Portal with other federal agencies?
  11. What is ICE’s role in verifying sponsor information provided to ORR as part of the reunification process?  Does this represent a recent change in policy?
  12. Has there been a change in policy with respect to the information that ICE can access on the UAC Portal?  If so, please provide additional information on the policy change.

We look forward to your response on this important issue.

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