ICE to use migrant children data
White House aide developed plan for deporting adults
WASHINGTON — The White House sought this month to embed immigration enforcement agents within the U.S. refugee agency that cares for unaccompanied migrant children, part of a long-standing effort to use information from their parents and relatives to target them for deportation, according to six current and former administration officials.
Though senior officials at the Department of Health and Human
Services rejected the attempt, they agreed to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to collect fingerprints and other biometric information from adults seeking to claim migrant children at government shelters. If those adults are deemed ineligible to take custody of children, ICE could then use their information to target them for arrest and deportation.
The arrangement appears to circumvent laws that restrict the use of the refugee program for deportation enforcement; Congress has made clear it does not want those who come forward as potential sponsors of minors in U.S. custody to be frightened away by possible deportation. But, in the reasoning of senior Trump administration officials, adults denied custody of children lose their status as “potential sponsors” and are fair game for arrest.
The plan has not been announced publicly.
It was developed by Stephen Miller, President Donald Trump’s top immigration adviser, who has long argued that HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement is being exploited by parents who hire smugglers to bring their children into the United States illegally.
The agency manages shelters that care for underage migrants who cross the border without a parent and tries to identify sponsors — typically family members —
eligible to take custody of the minors.
Previous Trump administration attempts to give ICE more access to the refugee program have generated significant opposition, because it potentially forces migrant parents to choose between reclaiming their children and risking arrest. Administration officials acknowledge the arrangement will instill fear among migrant parents, but they say it will deter families from having their children cross into the United States illegally.
Officials at ICE and HHS said the information shared with enforcement agents primarily would be used to screen adults for criminal violations and other “red flags,” and that it would not be focused on capturing parents and relatives who come forward to claim what the government calls “unaccompanied alien children.”
Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman, said his agency will help HHS ensure that children are not placed with sponsors until the sponsors have been thoroughly vetted, a review process that includes using biometric data. Cox said his agency has more-powerful screening tools at its disposal than HHS has, “including better capabilities to identify fraudulent documents or documents obtained by fraud.”
After the Trump administration began a similar information-sharing initiative last year, which predictably led to fewer sponsors coming forward and created a massive backlog of children in U.S. custody, Democrats fought to put a firewall between ICE and ORR.
According to those provisions, no federal funds “may be used by the Secretary of Homeland Security to place in detention, remove, refer for a decision whether to initiate removal proceedings, or initiate removal proceedings against a sponsor, potential sponsor, or member of a household of a sponsor or potential sponsor of an unaccompanied alien child.”
HHS officials have generally tried to keep ICE at a distance, insisting that their agency’s mission is to safeguard children and not to facilitate the arrest of their relatives.
Cox defended the legality of the program, citing the technical wording of the law: When a potential sponsor’s application is rejected, “that individual is no longer considered to be a sponsor or potential sponsor” and is therefore open to ICE arrest, he said.
While acknowledging the program could leave children in government custody for longer periods, Cox said better screening “should take precedence over speed of placement to what may ultimately be an unsafe environment for the child.”
Three officials familiar with Miller’s plan said it was part of his broader effort to chip away at congressionally mandated barriers between ICE and the refugee program.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Immigration adviser Stephen Miller has long argued that the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement is being exploited.