FACT CHECK: Have Immigrant Child Detentions Increased By 433 Percent?

Brad Sylvester | Fact Check Editor

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin claimed that immigrant child detention has increased by 433 percent since May 2017.

“A 433% increase in child detainees since May 2017. Many are being held in facilities exempt from child welfare inspections. How can the Trump Administration talk about human rights abuses abroad with this going on in our own backyard?” said Durbin on Twitter.

Verdict: True

The number of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) in detention centers jumped from 2,400 in May 2017 to 12,800 in mid-September – a 433 percent increase. The jump is due to more UAC apprehensions along the Southern border and policy changes by the Trump administration that have prolonged the amount of time these minors spend in detention.

Fact Check:

UACs are children below the age of 18 who are in the U.S. illegally without a parent or legal guardian.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children are apprehended each year by U.S. immigration authorities. The vast majority are then referred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In recent years, the majority of UACs have come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, often fleeing violence or in pursuit of economic opportunity.

ORR is responsible for caring for these children and must provide food, shelter and medical services until a sponsor can be found to take custody while they await immigration proceedings. HHS houses UACs in detention centers scattered throughout the country.

Unaccompanied children spend around two months in these shelters on average, so the number of UACs in ORR detention at any given time is only a fraction of the total number of referrals for that year.

Durbin gets his figure from a Sept. 12 article published in The New York Times which reported that the number of detained UACs rose from 2,400 in May 2017 to 12,800 in mid-September, a change of 433 percent.

HHS told The Daily Caller News Foundation that as of Sept. 24, the number had risen to over 13,000. Outside of the most recent surge, this is the highest number of UACs since 11,865 were in detention on Dec. 28, 2016.

The dramatic increase is the result of multiple factors. There was a 196 percent increase in UAC apprehensions from May 2017 to August 2018, so greater numbers of unaccompanied children were being referred to HHS for detention.

Only 1,484 children were apprehended in May 2017 – one of the lowest monthly figures in the last decade, according to U.S. Border Patrol – compared to 4,396 in August 2018.

Immigration experts believe that a slow down in releases, a result of several policy changes by the Trump administration, is also playing a role in the increased number of UACs in detention.

ORR entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) in April with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that mandated greater information sharing between the agencies. In June, a new rule was implemented that required all adults in the sponsor’s household to be fingerprinted.

ICE could use this information to track sponsors, so experts believe the changes are keeping potential guardians, many of whom are illegal immigrants themselves, from coming forward out of fear that the information they share with ORR will eventually result in their deportation.

The number of UACs being released to sponsors has dropped nearly 25 percent in FY 2018 despite the increase in the number of UAC apprehensions. The average length of time unaccompanied minors spend in detention has increased from 41 days in FY 2017 to 57 days as of June 15, 2018.

“This is not a story about a historically large surge in arrivals,” Mark Greenberg, a former official with HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, told Yahoo News. “The story is fundamentally about a significant slowdown in children being released from care.”

The new policies are the latest in a wave of changes aimed at improving the vetting standards for would-be sponsors after it was alleged that at least 3,400 UACs were released to sponsors with criminal backgroundsORR expanded the use of home studies in 2016 and refined the type of documents that could be used for identification in order to crack down on fraud.

The Trump administration has emphasized that changes were implemented to better secure the safety of the children within the UAC program.

“Because children who enter the country illegally are at high risk for exploitation by traffickers and smugglers, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families maintains high standards for vetting children’s sponsors for the safety and well-being of the child,” reads a statement from HHS obtained by CBS News.

The Trump administration has expressed concern that UACs are being recruited by gangs like MS-13 once they are placed with their sponsors. A White House fact sheet from June says that more than one-third of MS-13 gang members and affiliates who were arrested during the law enforcement initiative “Operation Matador” entered the country as unaccompanied minors.

Immigrant rights groups have pushed back against the new policies, contending that they unjustly emphasize law enforcement over family reunification.

“While thorough vetting of sponsors is beneficial, the MOA fails to place any limitations on the use of this data by ICE and CBP. Without these limitations, it will likely undermine family reunification, the fundamental principle of child welfare, by turning safe placement screening into a mechanism for immigration enforcement,” reads a post from Justice For Immigrants, a group which advocates for immigration rights.

In order to keep up with the growing number of unaccompanied minors in the custody of HHS, the Trump administration has made plans to expand the housing capacity at a detention center in Tornillo, Texas. ORR shelters have been at around 90 percent capacity since at least May, according to the Times.

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Brad Sylvester

Fact Check Editor
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