The Trump administration is still holding more than 14,600 migrant children at 137 government-funded shelters around the U.S., but that number could soon drop by hundreds of detainees under a policy shift at the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement is in charge of sheltering minors traveling by themselves or, especially under President Trump's officially defunct family separation policy, removed from their parents at the border. Going forward, that office will no longer fingerprint and run full background checks on all adults in a household that wants to sponsor a separated minor, only the sponsors themselves and any other adult who is flagged in a public-records check.
Most sponsors are a parent or relative of the detained child. "The children should be home with their parents," Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary at HHS's Administration for Children and Families, told NPR on Tuesday. "The government makes lousy parents." The extra screening "is not adding anything to the protection or the safety of the children," she added. "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." Johnson said about 2,000 children are ready to be released to vetted parents before Christmas.
The policy shift was driven in part by pragmatic concerns: The ACLU and other groups sued HHS last month over the extra background checks, and the 137 federal facilities are 91 percent full, most notoriously the massive Tornillo tent city in West Texas. Migrant advocates cheered the change — with caveats. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested 170 immigrants who applied to sponsor a migrant child, and HHS isn't ending its information-sharing agreement with ICE. "Rather than prioritizing the well-being and safety of children, the Trump administration continues to use them as bait to round up and deport their family members," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in a statement.