The Department of Health and Human Services is relaxing the requirements to place unaccompanied migrant children in the custody of sponsors, announcing Tuesday that it will no longer demand background checks from every member in a sponsor’s household.
The modifications are expected to significantly speed up the time it takes a child to be matched with a sponsor and could expedite the release of thousands of children from government-contracted shelters in the coming weeks.
Under the previous standards enacted in June, HHS required everyone in a household where a child might be placed to submit fingerprints in order to run them against FBI criminal background databases.
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From their inception, immigration advocates warned the stricter background checks would deter sponsors from coming forward out of fear of having their information shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities. As of Dec. 11, federal authorities had arrested 170 immigrants who came forward to sponsor migrant children in government custody, ICE officials said.
But the fingerprinting of anyone beyond the individual sponsor has “generally not yielded additional information that has enabled the Office of Refugee Resettlement to identify new child welfare risks,” a spokesperson from HHS said Tuesday.
The Trump administration was holding nearly 15,000 migrant children in 137 shelters across the nation as of last week, according to a report from National Public Radio.
The majority of children in federal custody are labeled as “unaccompanied alien children,” meaning that they crossed into the U.S. border without any parents or legal guardians.
During an October tour of a so-called tent city in Tornillo, Texas, an incident commander told NBC News the rise of children being detained at the border was due to the “extra precautions” in screening sponsors. He said at the time that nearly 1,000 children were awaiting the completion of sponsor background checks before they could leave the detention facilities.
“Anything that will safely expedite their release to family and loved ones is something we support,” Evy Ramos, a spokeswoman for BCFS, the company that operates the Tornillo tent facility, said after Tuesday’s changes were announced.
As of October, the average length of stay for children at Tornillo was 59 days, up from roughly 30 days under the Obama administration, according to HHS. Many children have waited longer at other facilities.