Donald Trump’s administration is using detained immigrant children as “bait” to arrest their sponsors and deliberately keeping kids in shelters for long periods, according to a class action lawsuit filed on Friday by immigration advocacy groups.
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of more than 10,000 children detained in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, is a list of horror stories compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Legal Aid Justice Center and a D.C.-based law firm.
Among the examples provided are an 11-year-old child who has languished in a shelter for more than five months and a 17-year-old whose father was deported to Guatemala after submitting his fingerprints to the ORR as part of the sponsorship process.
Using children in efforts to arrest their sponsors and keeping minors unnecessarily detained is “an abomination,” said Mary Bauer, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. “It is cruel, it is shocking, and it is every bit as horrific as the other kinds of family separation we have seen. This is not a problem that has been solved.”
She said a recently leaked government memo confirms that the Trump administration implemented policies such as zero tolerance and sharing a sponsor’s information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deter families of unauthorized immigrants from coming to the U.S.
Kayla Vazquez, who has been trying for four months to sponsor a 17-year-old family member, said the administration continues to put up hurdles to their reunification. “It feels like the government doesn’t care and they don’t understand how hard it is for the family,” she said during a media call on Tuesday. “I feel like they are playing a game and just keeping him there to have the family suffer.”
A representative from the Department of Health and Human Services wrote in an email to HuffPost, “As a matter of policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not comment on matters related to pending litigation. We are currently reviewing the court filing and have no information to add at this time.”
In November the number of detained children reached a record high of 14,000, and kids are spending an average of two months in shelters — largely due to Trump’s zero tolerance policy and a government crackdown on sponsors.
In an effort to lower the number of detained children, the government nixed a policy in December that required everyone in a sponsor’s household to be fingerprinted. This month the Trump administration shut down Tornillo, a tent camp in Texas that held more than 2,700 teens.
But immigration experts said there is still a crisis: Shelters are overflowing with children, and their sponsors are being arrested.
“I think the narrative we’ve seen in the media writ large is that things are better and kids got out and they are fine,” said Bauer. “And that’s wrong.”
The lawsuit attacks a memorandum of agreement (MOA) that immigration officials signed in April, directing the ORR to share information gathered on sponsors — including fingerprints, addresses and “biographic information” — with ICE. While the government has claimed that the agreement helps keep children safer, Bauer pointed out that the leaked memo states that a purpose of the MOA was to refer sponsors “for criminal prosecution” and that the agreement would have a “tremendous deterrent effect.” Since July, at least 170 potential sponsors have been arrested by ICE, and immigration experts said the agreement dissuades sponsors without legal status from coming forward, for fear of being deported.
The lawsuit tells the story a man from Guatemala who applied to sponsor his 17-year-old son, submitted fingerprints to the ORR in September and was deported three days later. After four months in detention, which involved being transferred to a high-security facility, the boy attempted to kill himself, according to court documents.
Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, the legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s immigrant advocacy program said on the media call that the MOA has turned the ORR into an “enforcement agency” rather than one that is supposed to protect kids.
“Every child we represent … has someone who wants them to come and live with them, and they are not allowed to do that,” said Bauer. “It’s really heartbreaking.”
In a separate but related issue, the lawsuit tells of sponsors who are waiting for months to get a child released from detention. Meanwhile, detained kids are becoming depressed and anxious and are behaving erratically, according to the court filing.
On the media call, Vazquez said that over the course of trying to sponsor her husband’s 17-year-old cousin, who fled Honduras because his father was abusive, case managers asked her to submit documents, such as his birth certificate and passport, multiple times.
After submitting her fingerprints in December and allowing a case manager to inspect her house, she was told her husband’s cousin would be released by Christmas. She said she is now worried they won’t be reunited before he turns 18 in four months, at which point he will be transferred to ICE custody.
“It’s frustrating not to know what is going on,” said Vazquez, choking back tears. “His mother reaches out to me, asking, ‘What is going on?’… and most of the time, I don’t have anything to say to her because we don’t know ourselves.”
Sandoval-Moshenberg said that the sponsorship process is opaque and that case managers have wide discretion to approve or deny applicants on the basis of subjective criteria.
The first hearing in the case is set for Feb. 15, and Sandoval-Moshenberg said that he wants the government to establish transparent policies and standards for the reunification process and to end the MOA between ICE and the ORR so potential sponsors don’t fear arrest.
Bauer said children should be speedily reunited with relatives, yet the Trump administration has falsely painted sponsors as criminals. “That’s not the real story here,” she said. “Not a single one of the kids that we talked to was being detained because there were concerns of abuse or trafficking.”