At this very moment, more than 12,800 migrant children are being held in federal custody—the highest number ever recorded.
As the New York Times reported, almost 13,000 children are currently being detained at federally contracted shelters—up from 2,400 children who were in federal custody in May 2017. While a small number of those being detained are children who remain separated from their families in the wake of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy for those who crossed the border into the U.S., the vast majority of children came to the country alone, without their parents.
The increase is not due to a surge of children crossing the border, but to longer delays in releasing migrant youth, many of whom are teenagers from Central America fleeing violence and seeking asylum, to their family members and sponsors who already live in the U.S. A recent investigation by ProPublica Illinois found that in 2017, the average length of time a migrant child spent in a shelter run by Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement was 34 days—today, it’s now almost two months. Many are held for far longer stretches. One teenager from Honduras, according to ProPublica Illinois, was held in custody for 598 days.
Trump administration officials attribute the delays to changes they have made in the process that vets family members and sponsors, who now have to submit their fingerprints to the federal government. While officials claim these changes are meant to prevent any potential abuse, critics charge that it has simply made family members and sponsors more reluctant to come forward, leaving children in limbo. Sponsors are often undocumented, as the Times notes, making many wary of now being fingerprinted and put on the radar of immigration officials. Those who are willing to come forward are then put through a months-long review process.
And—no surprises here—the Trump administration doesn’t plan to reduce the number of children it’s holding in what amounts to prison-like conditions. Already, HHS is making plans to expand its shelter system—one that has been rife with abuse—and increase the number of beds for migrant children in its custody. This week, ORR announced it intends to keep the notorious Tornillo “tent city” immigrant youth detention center open through the end of the year and to expand its number of beds up to 3,800.
“You are flying in the face of child welfare, and we’re doing it by design,” Representative Rosa DeLauro told the Times. “You drive up the cost and you prolong the trauma on these children.”
Somewhere, I’m sure, Stephen Miller is smiling.