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Trump's 'zero tolerance' at U.S.-Mexico border is filling child shelters

Trump's 'zero tolerance' at U.S.-Mexico border is filling child shelters
A U.S. Border Patrol agent detains juvenile immigrants in La Grulla, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015. (John Moore / Getty)

Family separations on the southern border due to President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy increased the number of immigrant children in government shelters 22% during the last month, officials said.

As of Wednesday, 10,852 migrant children were being held at shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, compared with 8,886 at the end of last month, said agency spokesman Kenneth Wolfe. The average time such children spent at government shelters has also increased, from 51 to 56 days.

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The new zero-tolerance policy piloted in Arizona and west Texas last year was extended border-wide last month. Under the policy, migrants who enter the United States illegally face misdemeanor charges in federal criminal court, felony charges if they have crossed illegally before; parents are sent to federal detention, their children to shelters. In the past, such cases were often handled administratively, not in criminal court.

Trump tweeted inaccurately over the weekend that a “horrible law” was prompting the migrant family separations. Immigrant advocates insisted the administration was to blame for pursuing criminal charges against migrants, instead of handling their cases administratively.

Health and Human Services has 100 shelters in 14 states, and "additional temporary housing is only sought as a last resort when current locations are reaching capacity," said Wolfe, a spokesman for the department’s Administration for Children and Families.

That’s what’s happening now that the shelters are 95% full, he said. The agency has 1,218 extra beds reserved elsewhere, including several hundred at a government-owned building near an Air Force base in Homestead, Fla. Officials are also considering housing children at several military bases, as they did after an influx of Central American children in 2014.

Unaccompanied minors now include children who cross the border without an adult and those separated from adults charged in federal criminal court under the new policy. At least 638 migrants who crossed with 658 children were charged under the policy between May 6 and May 19, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told a Senate committee last week.

Last year, Health and Human Services assumed custody of more than 40,000 immigrant children, releasing 93% to family members and other sponsors (half were parents, 40% close relatives). The department has a responsibility to assume custody within 72 hours and try to place children, but it is not required to track sponsors.

Last week, Health and Human Services drew criticism after reports that 1,475 of the children they placed last year were "missing,” according to a phone survey 30 days later. Trump administration officials responded by announcing an agreement by Health and Human Services to give the Department of Homeland Security access to information about sponsors they’re still vetting, and to improve the process, fingerprinting parents who attempt to claim children. Homeland Security officials said the new coordination will better protect migrant children, but some migrant advocates worry it could deter families from claiming children.

"If somebody is unwilling to claim their child from custody because they're concerned about their own immigration status, I think that de facto calls into question whether they're an adequate sponsor and whether we should be releasing a child to that person," Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, told reporters in a telephone briefing Tuesday.

Wagner added that the department plans to increase sponsor screening because “we have the problem of people fraudulently claiming to be parents when, in fact, they're not.”

Immigrants advocates said the added oversight could increase the number of children in already crowded Health and Human Services shelters.

“Their workload has grown significantly, and they’re not equipped to be handling children who have been orphaned by these new policies,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Assn.

Johnson also criticized the department’s short-term solution to the space crunch.

“Commandeering these military bases to house children has never turned out well,” Johnson said. “It’s resulted in more lawsuits and more inhumane conduct and treatment of people housed there. … Those facilities are not designed for these kinds of people.”

Migrant parents already appear less willing to claim their children, according to Leah Chavla, a policy advisor at the Washington-based Women’s Refugee Commission.

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Three years ago, 60% of unaccompanied youths were claimed by parents, but that dropped to 41% this fiscal year following immigration crackdowns by the administration, including raids on sponsors last summer that resulted in 400 people being detained in the Midwest and southern United States. Chavla’s group and other advocates filed a complaint about the raids with Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and its Office of inspector general alleging unlawful conduct, but the raids still had a chilling effect.

“Families are more reluctant to come forward,” Chavla said, and children are reluctant to identify their parents to Health and Human Services for fear they will be deported.

“They’re going to languish in custody. We’re going to see the length of stay creep up” for unaccompanied children, she said.

Lee Gelernt, an immigration attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit to force the government to stop separating families at the border, and a federal judge in California is considering it.

Gelernt was in El Paso on Wednesday meeting with one of the plaintiffs, a Brazilian mother charged and jailed near the border and separated last August from her 14-year-old son, who was sent to Illinois. They are still not reunited.

“There’s just going to be hundreds of parents and kids that fall into the Brazilian mom’s situation,” Gelernt said. She asserts that the government is separating families to deter immigration.

In March and April, more than 50,000 people were detained per month trying to cross the southwest border illegally, levels similar to those during the Obama administration, according to U.S. government figures. During those two months about 8,400 unaccompanied minors were caught on the border.

Soon after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, border crossings briefly dropped to record lows before creeping back up again at the end of last year. The increase has frustrated the president, who has repeatedly called for more action to seal the border.

5:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Lee Gelernt of the ACLU.

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Los Angeles Times staff reporting and comments from Leah Chavla of the Women’s Refugee Commission.

This article was originally published at 9:20 a.m.

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