The Trump administration is holding a record level of 13,300 migrant children in its custody, forcing the government to shift hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure there is enough money and bed space in Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities. This increase is largely due to the administration’s new policies and not an indication that more unaccompanied children are coming to the US-Mexico border.

These kids by and large arrive at the Southern border alone, seeking refuge in the United States. After children reach the border, they are placed in the custody of HHS as the government works to identify parents or other suitable guardians to care for the child while their immigration proceedings progress.

Lately, however, the rate of children being released from HHS has dropped dramatically, as families and guardians in the United States have been too scared to come forward. The major reason for this hesitation is a new policy requiring HHS to share information about potential sponsors with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for immigration enforcement purposes. HHS will share with ICE, for instance, that a potential sponsor is undocumented.

As a result of the new policy, ICE arrested 41 individuals who came forward as sponsors, most based on their immigration status alone; over 70 percent of those arrested have no criminal record.

This new policy and the recent apprehensions of would-be guardians is creating a chilling effect in the immigrant community. As a result, unaccompanied children are remaining in HHS care for longer periods of time, up to almost 60 days on average compared to 35 days in 2016 under the Obama administration.

With more kids in HHS care than anticipated, the current administration realized it needed more space in its shelters and more funds. Over the summer, the administration told Congress it was diverting $446 million to HHS to cover its needs to house children this fiscal year, which ends on September 30.

While some of this money is coming from other refugee support programs in HHS, there are other important programs taking a hit as a result. This includes taking $16.7 million from the low-income children’s program Head Start, $5.7 million from the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, and $13.3 million from the National Cancer Institute.

There is no doubt the administration must meet its obligations under law to care for unaccompanied children, but it should not have to rob other vital programs and projects of necessary funds to do it.

Unfortunately, once again, it appears the administration is facing a crisis of its own making. In the coming weeks it will be important for Congress to not only conduct rigorous oversight of HHS and ICE, but also insist on holding the agencies to the budget and operational direction they have been given.

Photo by David Rangel

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