Migrant teens walk inside the a tent facility in Tornillo, Tex. The facility opened this summer to house minors who had crossed the southern border or their own and were waiting to be sent to sponsors in the United States while their immigration claims are processed. (Andres Leighton/AP)

With a record number of migrant children and teens in U.S. government custody, the Trump administration is easing screening of potential sponsors, a change officials say will speed the release of minors from shelters that are nearly full.

By dropping a six-month-old requirement that all people living in the home of a would-be sponsor submit fingerprints to the FBI, the Department of Health and Human Services says it may be able to send thousands of migrant youths to relatives or other temporary guardians by Christmas.

The amount of time children are spending in HHS facilities has grown dramatically in recent months — averaging 90 days as of November — mostly because it is taking the government longer to find and vet sponsors. HHS says the fingerprinting of all members of a household, ordered in June, had “generally not yielded additional information that has enabled [officials] to identify new child welfare risks.”

But the government is keeping a second, equally controversial policy that advocates say also has slowed the release process: allowing HHS to share information about those they are screening with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Between July and late November, ICE arrested 170 individuals suspected of being in the country illegally as a result of information that came from sponsor-related background checks. The majority did not have criminal records, ICE said (being in the country illegally is a civil violation).

Immigration lawyers and advocates say the information-sharing arrangement — and the arrests — have had a chilling effect on sponsors, leaving children in federal custody longer, and in some cases indefinitely, if no one comes forward to claim them.

The number of children in federally funded shelters and facilities has climbed to 14,600, up from approximately 9,200 when President Trump took office two years ago, HHS officials said. The system’s current capacity is 16,000 beds.

Most of the children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone, or with adults who were not relatives, often fleeing poverty, corruption and violence and in many cases planning to seek asylum here.

“Anyone who has interacted with a child in detention knows there is no way to overstate the ongoing suffering they experience and how profoundly damaging it is for them,” said Neha Desai, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. She said she has interviewed children who were so traumatized by being held that ultimately they chose to return to dangerous situations in their home countries rather than pursue immigration claims.


Migrant teens walk in a line through the Tornillo facility, which opened this summer with a few hundred youths and now houses 2,800. (Andres Leighton/AP)

A total of 50,036 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody after crossing the border in fiscal 2018, the third-highest total ever, but significantly fewer than during the mass surges of 2014 and 2016. The average time in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody rose to 60 days in fiscal 2018, compared to 48 days in 2017.

The youths are processed and sent to shelters that are scattered across the country. Some facilities also housed the 2,500 children separated from their parents at the border last spring as part of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy. The chaos involved in reuniting those families preoccupied HHS officials throughout the summer, and at times took priority over processing minors who had crossed the border on their own.

An overflow facility that opened this summer in Tornillo, Tex., now houses 2,800 teenagers, up from 1,500 in October, and there is room for 1,000 more. On average, minors spend 33 days there, living and attending classes in heated tents.

The contract with the nonprofit that runs the facility — yards from the Mexican border — expires Dec. 31. HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer declined to say whether it would be extended or renegotiated.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who visited Tornillo this month with other Democratic lawmakers, introduced legislation Thursday to close the facility and another large-scale overflow shelter in Homestead, Fla.

“The whole idea behind these camps is that they are temporary,” Merkley said. “They are unregulated, and it’s amazing how little oversight they receive from Congress.”

Merkley said the Tornillo director told him nearly 1,300 of the children there had completed the screening process and were ready to be released, but had not gotten the green light from the government.

“He said he could have the kids home in five to seven days,” Merkley said. When he asked the director why they were still being held, “the answer was that the federal government was acting very slowly. I don’t know if they are overwhelmed or slowing things but they are not putting in the resources to expedite the process.”


A private security guard throws a soccer ball back inside the Tornillo camp for migrant teens. (Andres Leighton/AP)

The agency said it is doing all it can to ensure the safety of “vulnerable children in difficult circumstances,” including careful background checks of potential sponsors and those they live with. Many would-be sponsors are parents or other close relatives of the children, who migrated to the United States ahead of the youths and often are undocumented themselves.

Advocates say sharing information with the Department of Homeland Security for immigration enforcement purposes has nothing to do with a child’s well-being.

Rescinding the directive to fingerprint everyone in the household is “a step in the right direction,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents migrant children. “But there are a great number of would-be sponsors who say they would love to help their nephew or cousin but not at the cost of being deported and abandoning their own children. This only solves half of the problem.”

The Legal Aid Justice Center is one of several organizations suing the federal government over the information-sharing and what they see as burdensome vetting. They argue the process delays reunification and violates the legal rights of migrant children and families.

Experts and lawyers also say the process of placing children with sponsors seems unorganized and gives case managers too much discretion. They describe fingerprint data being lost, documentation getting misplaced and sponsors waiting a month’s time or more to secure an appointment with one of the 40 agencies collecting digital fingerprints.

During an October tour of Tornillo for journalists, the facility’s incident commander, who spoke to reporters on the condition that his name be withheld, said many minors there were waiting for the government to complete FBI fingerprint checks.

But a senior federal law enforcement official, who also declined to be named, said the delay is not with the FBI, which processes requests quickly once they are received.

The ballooning population at the shelters is costing U.S. taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Temporary shelters bill the government about $750 per child per day, officials said this summer, while permanent shelters charge about $250.

In the past several months, there have been scattered allegations of sexual abuse and other misconduct at shelters as well.

Desai, the youth law attorney, said each excess day a young person spends in detention can be psychologically damaging and demonstrates a callousness on the part of the federal government.

“This administration has never concealed its desire to indefinitely detain children as a deterrent to other would-be immigrants,” Desai said.

Lenny Bernstein contributed to this report.