MIAMI — Armando Tabora desperately wants to get his teenage daughter out of the government detention facility where she has been for more than three months. He has been stymied at every turn.
The Florida landscaping worker took the bold step of going to a government office to submit fingerprints and other documents required for immigrants to get their children out of government custody — and are now being shared with deportation agents. He was then told that the woman he rents a room from would also need to submit fingerprints, something she refused to do. He then sought out friends who are here legally to help him out, to no avail.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Tabora, an immigrant from Honduras who has lived more than a decade in the shadows without being detected. “My daughter is desperate, crying. She wants to get out of there.”
The drama of parents being separated from their children at the border dominated the headlines this year, but thousands of immigrant families are experiencing a similar frustration: the increasing hurdles they must surmount to take custody of sons, daughters and relatives who crossed the border on their own.
The Trump administration has imposed more stringent rules and vetting for family members to get these children back as part of an across-the-board hardening of immigration policy.
As a result, family members are struggling to comply with the new requirement, keeping children in detention longer and helping the number of migrant kids in government custody soar to the highest levels ever. Federal officials insist the policies are about ensuring the safety of children.
More than 12,000 children are now in government shelters, compared with 2,400 in May 2017. The average length that children spend in detention has increased from 40 days in fiscal year 2016 to 59 in fiscal year 2018, according to federal data.
The requirements include the submission of fingerprints by all adults in the household where a migrant child will live. These sponsors — the term the U.S. uses for adults who take custody of immigrant children — are also subject to more background checks, proofs of income and home visits, lawyers say.
And this information is now be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — something that did not occur in the past. ICE said this week that the agency has arrested 41 sponsors since the agencies started sharing information in June.
Lawyers and advocates say that change has had a chilling effect because many family members live in the country illegally and have been deterred from claiming relatives for fear they will be deported.
“They are saying: ‘We are going after the people trying to take care of them (children),'” said Jen Podkul, director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense.
The government has long required families to go through some vetting to serve as sponsors. The issue has become more prevalent in the last five years when tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras started coming across the border.
Since October 2014, the federal government has placed more than 150,000 unaccompanied minors with parents or other adult sponsors who are expected to care for the children and help them attend school while they seek legal status in immigration court.
Under Trump, the rules have been toughened in what the administration says are necessary steps to keep children from ending up in the homes of people with criminal records and other issues that could endanger kids.
“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 the child to that person,” Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, said when the policy was announced in May.
The issue of sharing information with ICE arises because children and adults immigrants are handled by separate federal government agencies. Children are in the custody of the Health and Human Service Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, while adults are handled by ICE.
Until the new fingerprinting policy took effect, the government rarely shared such information with immigration officials unless a fingerprint match showed that a potential sponsor had a particularly alarming record, said Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California Davis.
The tougher rules have put many immigrants in the position of doing something that once seemed unthinkable: turning over their fingerprints and other information knowing that it’ll be shared with ICE.
Marvin Puerto did just that to get custody of his 9-year-old son, Nahun. Puerto crossed the border in 2014 and has been trying to live in Missouri in the shadows since then. He and his wife, Eilyn Carbajal, waited two months to get custody of the boy.
“I did not want to do the fingerprints, but I had no choice”, said the 29-year-old construction worker. “Now they have all my information. I feel they are going to accuse me of smuggling family members.”
Workers at The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama say that after the Office of Refugee Resettlement started sharing information with ICE in June, two to four sponsors a week did not show up for appointments and a few who did visit refused to get fingerprinted.
After the New York Civil Liberties Union sued in February on behalf of a detained Salvadoran teen and his mother, the government was required to release case files on 45 children held under similar circumstances. In about half a dozen of those cases, reluctance to provide fingerprints was a factor in holding up children’s release, forcing some sponsors to scramble for another place to live and others to drop out of the application process, the NYCLU said.
If unaccompanied minors are not placed with sponsors they can end up in a federal foster care program. Some could be deported to the same dangers from which they fled.
Many of the parents and other relatives trying to secure their children’s release are poor and, to cover expenses, often share homes with others who are unrelated or in the country illegally. Many of those roommates have been reluctant to submit their fingerprints.
For Adan, a 27-year-old Guatemalan living in south Florida, leaving his 17-year-old sister in detention was out of the question. He followed the process and was given custody of her. Now, he wants to leave his apartment.
“I feel I need to move to have a sense of security”, said the landscaper about ICE knowing where he lives. He did not provide a last name because of his immigration status.