Posted on May 12, 2020

Citing Coronavirus, Trump Officials Refuse to Release Migrant Kids to Sponsors — and Deport Them Instead

Molly O’Toole and Cindy Carcamo, LA Times, May 12, 2020

The 17-year-old Guatemalan boy has been in a California detention center for migrant children for more than 400 days.

He’s one of the longest-held of the roughly 1,800 minors in the U.S. immigration detention system — the largest in the world, and one now riddled with the novel coronavirus.

Federal detention of immigrants is civil, not criminal, and migrant children have special protections under a decades-old legal settlement known as the Flores agreement, which requires the government to hold them in “safe and sanitary” conditions and make “prompt and continuous” efforts to release them and reunify families. Two federal judges in recent weeks have ruled that the administration has violated the terms of that agreement in its handling of migrant children.

The Guatemalan teen — detained at the center in Fairfield, in Solano County — has been held by the Trump administration for 20 times the 20-day maximum allowed under Flores.

It’s not for lack of someone wanting to take him. When Bryce Tache and James Donaldson read on social media about the teenager, whom they call Mariano to protect his identity, the Minneapolis couple quickly applied to sponsor him, which would allow him to be released.

That was six months ago.

Now they fear the administration is using the pandemic to try to keep the boy until he turns 18, when officials can more easily deport him.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the detention of unaccompanied minors, denied making any policy changes amid the pandemic to prioritize enforcement actions against migrant children and parents.

“HHS is a child welfare agency, not a law enforcement agency,” spokesman Mark Weber said Friday. “If there is a delay in unification, it is for public health reasons.”

Across the country, however, lawyers who represent migrant kids say the administration is refusing to release children to ready sponsors. {snip}

Trump administration attorneys have argued in court that children are safer from COVID-19 in custody — even as the government quietly ramps up efforts to deport them. In recent weeks, officials have pulled scores of children and parents from detention in secretive operations to remove them from the U.S., according to lawyers, migrants’ affidavits and the receiving countries. Some were sick. A number were challenging administration policies in court.

Since March, when Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus, the administration has cut the population of detained kids and families by about 2,400, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, the agency in the HHS department that Congress charged with the care and placement of unaccompanied migrant minors, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detains migrant kids with their parents.

But releases of kids to sponsors, already slowed under Trump, have nearly stalled during the same time period, recent litigation shows.

After the administration essentially sealed the U.S. border in March as part of its coronavirus response, few new children and families have entered the system: The number of unaccompanied migrant children turned over to the refugee resettlement office has dropped roughly 97%.

At the same time, ORR has released far fewer kids to sponsors than in previous months, and those left behind are being held longer.

Since March, the agency lists about 50 children as having been removed from the U.S. and roughly 180 more as having been transferred to ICE custody. ICE wouldn’t say how many minors it had deported.

The U.S. data appear to conflict with numbers from the countries receiving U.S. deportees. From March through May, Guatemala’s immigration officials, for example, report that the U.S. has deported 417 minors to that country alone.


ICE provided data on families and COVID-19 cases in custody but did not respond to questions about its policies.

Lawyers across the country said that under the cover of the coronavirus, the ORR is coordinating with ICE to target kids in custody for removal.


Late last month, two federal judges — including District Judge Dolly Gee in Los Angeles, who oversees the Flores settlement — ruled that the administration’s actions toward migrant kids and parents amid the pandemic violate the agreement and federal law.

That same week, a third federal judge threw out a suit to force nationwide releases from detention facilities that health experts and judges have called “tinderboxes” for the virus.

Almost all the kids are being held significantly longer than the Flores settlement allows, according to the recent litigation. The vast majority, as well as the parents detained with them, are asylum seekers, and many have legal orders in place known as stays of removal, intended to protect them from deportation. Most have relatives in the U.S. ready to sponsor them. The government has not provided evidence that they are flight risks or a danger, Gee noted in her ruling.

Administration officials say they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Migrants, their advocates, health experts and lawmakers, however, have documented a lack of sanitation, personal protective equipment and medical attention.

Government attorneys argue that the minors are safer detained.

Dr. Amanda Cohn, a CDC official, submitted a written declaration in the case before Gee that releasing unaccompanied children, “likely increases risk of exposing [them] to COVID-19 relative to remaining in custody.”

As of Monday, ICE had reported 869 coronavirus cases among migrants in custody, with more than 50% of those tested coming up positive. About 6% overall have gotten a test.

April Grant, an ICE spokeswoman, said Friday there were no cases of the virus in its three family detention centers but declined to say how many kids and parents had been tested. Families at the sites have undergone tests and are currently quarantined, lawyers told The Times.

About 1,500 unaccompanied migrant kids are held at nearly 200 federally contracted facilities across the U.S. supervised by the ORR. From late March to May, confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those minors increased from four to 68, according to agency data. About one in three children tested were infected, but the government has tested only 12% of those in the agency’s custody.


Since March, the ORR has issued orders to stop placements in California, Washington state and New York and more recently has limited out-of-state releases or transfers.

The agency also reinstated a policy requiring fingerprints for most potential sponsors and sharing the information with the Homeland Security Department — a practice Judge Gee noted wasn’t required and that other officials warn discourages families from coming forward. The agency also demanded home studies, then discontinued doing them, despite the possibility of virtual visits.