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U.S. drops strict fingerprint policy that slowed release of migrant children from custody

U.S. drops strict fingerprint policy that slowed release of migrant children from custody
Parents and other sponsors have said the fingerprinting rule had slowed placement of children in homes, in part because some members of the household were afraid to be fingerprinted. (Andres Leighton / Associated Press)

The Trump administration is changing the way it reviews sponsors who want to care for migrant children in government custody — backing off of a requirement that all people in the house be fingerprinted.

The fingerprint requirement began in June amid the zero-tolerance policy at the border that led to the separation of some 2,400 children from their parents. The children taken from parents were placed in shelters until a sponsor, often a parent or other family member, could be found and evaluated before releasing the children to that sponsor.

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But the addition of fingerprinting has slowed the process and clogged the shelters. Some potential sponsors have said they couldn't get people in their homes to be fingerprinted because they were afraid. The information is shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and officers have arrested some 170 sponsors and others on immigration violations using the fingerprint data.

More than 49,000 children crossed the border alone during the 2018 budget year. While the overall number of children coming to the U.S. is down from a high in 2016, minors are staying in shelters longer and the total number of children detained at any one time is at an all-time high. The average length of time that children spend in shelters has increased from 40 days in fiscal 2016 to 59 in fiscal 2018, according to federal data. There are more than 14,000 children in 137 government shelters around the country.

Austin, Texas-based Southwest Key Programs operates facilities to hold immigrant children in Arizona, California and Texas, including one facility in an old Walmart. It has greatly expanded its operations this year as more children have been held for longer periods.

“We are greatly encouraged by this,” Juan Sanchez, the agency's chief executive officer, said of the change. “This will help all caregivers reduce the time these children stay in shelters and give them the foundation they need to thrive and prosper.”

U.S. Health and Human Services officials say fingerprints will still be required for sponsors and will be cross-checked with the FBI databases and U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrest records.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that manages the children, will do public records checks on all adult household members. Fingerprints for those adults will still be required in certain circumstances, including if the records check uncovers disqualifying factors, like a history of child abuse, a documented safety risk for the child or if the child is especially vulnerable.

The change could result in the release of many more children from the centers. A series of tents that opened in June to house older children in Tornillo, Texas, was to close later this month. The space originally had 400 beds, but it expanded twice and now holds roughly 2,700 minors. A spokesman for HHS, Mark Weber, said on Tuesday afternoon that the agency had yet to make a decision about whether Tornillo will close by year's end.

HHS officials say their focus is the health and safety and best interests of the child, and they treat that responsibility with care.

But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was unmoved by the policy shift.

“Rather than prioritizing the well-being and safety of children, the Trump administration continues to use them as bait to round up and deport their family members,” he said in a statement.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and other agencies sued over the fingerprint policy last month, arguing it had slowed the process for releasing migrant children.

During the zero-tolerance policy over the summer, HHS was not accustomed to managing families with children who came to the border and had no system in place to track families together. The parents were criminally charged with illegal entry. Because children can't go into criminal custody with their parents, they were separated at U.S. Border Patrol facilities.

The Border Patrol must transfer children to HHS custody within 72 hours, and if parents return before then, they are reunited with their children. If not, they become unaccompanied minors who stay in shelters and are given access to education, food. healthcare and exercise.

The summertime separations resulted in worldwide outrage, and President Trump stopped the separations. A federal judge required the government to reunite the families.

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