Updated at 4:59 pm ET
The Department of Health and Human Services is changing the ways it conducts background checks on sponsors of migrant children, a surprise move that will mean the release of hundreds of such children from controversial government-contracted shelters across the country.
The Trump administration had come under fire for holding nearly 15,000 migrant children in 137 shelters. The vast majority of the children are "unaccompanied alien children" who crossed the border without parents or legal guardians. The administration has been criticized for long delays in releasing them to live with sponsors while their asylum cases are pending in immigration court. In a turnabout, the government now agrees the vetting of sponsors — usually a parent or family member — was taking too long.
"The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents," said Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, in an interview with NPR.
"We're finding [the extra screening] is not adding anything to the protection or the safety of the children," she added.
To speed the release of children, HHS has decided to drop a requirement, put into place just six months ago, that everyone in a sponsor's household be fingerprinted and receive an extensive criminal background check. That extra vetting had slowed down the process. Starting immediately, only the sponsors will continue to be fingerprinted and run through FBI and state databases and through Department of Homeland Security records.
A source familiar with the operation of the sprawling tent camp in Tornillo, Texas, said children in that facility had waited 50 days, even after all the vetting was completed. He said there are 1,300 children ready to be discharged.
Johnson said there are about 2,000 children in the shelter system who are ready to be released to already vetted parents in the next four to five days.
"I don't want to cause any additional harm by keeping kids in care any longer than they need to when they have a thoroughly vetted parent waiting for them," she said.
On Tuesday, there were 14,600 children in a system whose capacity is 16,000. At 91 percent capacity, the government has to either add beds or release children. The number of children in the government's care has doubled since March, as more Central American teenagers are crossing the border without their parents, and the wait time in shelters has lengthened.
HHS has already spent $144 million on the Tornillo facility, where it employs some 2,000 employees to care for 2,800 children. The nonprofit that operates Tornillo has stressed how it strives to make the children as comfortable and happy as possible, but child welfare experts say detention is simply wrong for children.
"This is really an extraordinary development, and one that should dramatically reduce the number of children in federal immigration custody," said Neha Desai, senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. This group and others filed a lawsuit last month challenging the extra background checks that were prolonging children's stay in shelters.
"The new policy should never have been enacted in the first place," she said, "but I'm truly thrilled that the government has finally acknowledged its deeply flawed approach and chosen to correct course."
Johnson said the rule change would not affect an agreement whereby HHS shares sponsor information with Immigration and Customs and Enforcement. Critics have warned that some potential sponsors are reluctant to come forward knowing that they are possibly making themselves targets of deportation agents. So far, ICE has arrested 170 immigrants who applied with HHS to sponsor children but are in the country unlawfully.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Trump administration has come under fire for holding a record 15,000 migrant children in shelters across the country and for long delays in releasing those children to relatives. Today NPR has learned that the Department of Health and Human Services plans to speed up the release of those children. That means hundreds of them may be able to spend Christmas with family already living in the U.S.
NPR's John Burnett has this exclusive report and joins us now from Austin. Hey, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: So tell us what you learned today.
BURNETT: Well, starting immediately, Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the care of the migrant kids, is changing a policy that's been really controversial. They're no longer going to do background checks on every adult who lives in the household where the child is going to live. Imagine if several families live in one household.
CHANG: Oh, yeah.
BURNETT: The government has had to do background checks on every single adult, which means fingerprinting and criminal records checked and even if there were no red flags. So this led to all these enormous delays, and some kids have been in custody since last summer - rather, this summer. The government will continue to do these full background checks on the actual adult sponsor who takes custody of the child, and that's often a parent, a legal guardian or extended family member.
CHANG: And how quickly exactly will these children be released, do you think?
BURNETT: Well, earlier today, I spoke with Lynn Johnson. She's the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services who's in charge of children and families. She told me initially there are about 2,000 kids in the shelter system who are ready to be released in the next four to five day.
CHANG: Oh, wow.
BURNETT: I know. I asked Assistant Secretary Johnson whether the extra vetting had accomplished anything.
LYNN JOHNSON: And we're finding that it's not adding anything to the protection or the safety for these children. The children should be home with their parents. The government makes lousy parents.
BURNETT: So, Ailsa, this is the first time the government has admitted that its background checks were a little over the top.
CHANG: And what has it been like in these shelters for these children all this time?
BURNETT: Well, I spoke with a source in West Texas who's familiar with the operation of the Tornillo tent city out in the desert. It's the largest shelter in the system, and it's been the most criticized. He said it was only supposed to be open for 30 days, but it's been extended three times. He says their staff is exhausted. Now there are 2,800 kids out there, mainly teenage boys from Central America who came to the border without their parents, and they're running out of beds. The nonprofit that runs the camp let HHS know that its contract is up in two weeks, and the department had to do something to start downsizing the camp.
CHANG: So if all of these extreme, extensive background checks were causing lengthy delays - there really wasn't any real justification for such extensive background checks; the government's admitting to that now - why was the government doing all of this in the first place?
BURNETT: Well, I mean, HHS has been hypersensitive to the safety of the kids in its care ever since a highly publicized incident four years ago. There was some - a lot of reporting around migrant kids who were released to human trafficking rings that put the kids to work in an egg farm in Ohio. And the Trump administration said that was one of the reasons it initiated this extra screening.
But today these shelters are more than 90 percent full. They were going to reach capacity any week now, so the government had to do something to avert a crisis. And the assistant secretary said one option is they could have even added more beds.
JOHNSON: But I think what weighed more heavily was that I don't want to be causing any additional harm by keeping kids in care longer than they need to when they have a thoroughly vetted parent waiting for them.
BURNETT: And there was also the question of cost, Ailsa. The tent camp for children is reportedly costing the government nearly a million dollars a day. You have 2,000 employees out there taking care of 2,800 kids.
CHANG: Now, all along, children's advocates have been highly critical of these shelters. They have said that detention is not good for kids. What's been the reaction today?
BURNETT: So an organization called the National Center for Youth Law along with some other immigrant advocates filed a lawsuit last month challenging the extra backgrounding checks. And here was the reaction from the group's director of immigration, Neha Desai, when I told her about the rule change.
NEHA DESAI: This is amazing, wow.
CHANG: It's really happening.
BURNETT: She said it never should have been initiated in the first place 'cause it's causing so many children, some as young as toddlers, to be warehoused in these shelters.
DESAI: But I'm truly thrilled that the government has finally acknowledged its deeply flawed approach and chosen to correct course.
BURNETT: And she agreed it should dramatically reduce the number of kids in custody. And it's heartening that hundreds of them could be home for Christmas.
CHANG: It's wonderful news. That's NPR's John Burnett. Thanks, John.
BURNETT: You bet, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.