DHS, ICE have been fingerprinting unaccompanied alien children longer than reported
Reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials only recently began fingerprinting unaccompanied alien children, or UACs, who are 14 years and older who are transferred by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are not accurate. An official manual shows ICE has performed and has the authority to collect biometrics in that situation.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees shelters holding UACs until they can identify potential “sponsors” or verify family members in the U.S. to permanently place the children with.
According to the ICE Enforcement And Removal Operations (ERO) Juvenile And Family Residential Management Unit Field Office Juvenile Coordinator Handbook issued in 2017, different components of DHS under CBP and ICE have responsibilities relating to UACs.
According to the ICE ERO manual, “(u)pon a UAC’s arrival to a DHS processing area, the apprehending DHS officer takes fingerprints of UAC 14 years and older and initiates a search in the Automated Biometric Identification System to determine any prior apprehensions and to verify identity. The officer also initiates a criminal record check to verify if the UAC had any previous criminal history.”
“The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), requires all UAC who are apprehended at a land border or Port of Entry (POE) from a country contiguous with the United States, to undergo a screening process (within 48 hours) prior to repatriation if they express a wish to withdraw their request for admission,” the guidance states, noting that “as a matter of policy, CBP also screens all UAC that they encounter in order to identify any indicators of human trafficking or fear of return to their home country.”
CBP has referred “potential human trafficking cases to HSI for further investigation. ERO officers [also] screen any newly encountered UAC in the interior for indicators of human trafficking. If the UAC indicates potential victimization within the United States during screening or at any time, the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, the local HSI office, and ORR must be notified,” the manual said.
Additionally, 8 U.S. Code § 1302, Registration of Aliens, states: “It shall be the duty of every alien now or hereafter in the United States, who (1) is fourteen years of age or older, (2) has not been registered and fingerprinted under section 1201(b) of this title or section 30 or 31 of the Alien Registration Act, 1940, and (3) remains in the United States for thirty days or longer, to apply for registration and to be fingerprinted before the expiration of such thirty days.”
Parents and legal guardians of unregistered children are expected to register their fingerprints within 30 days, and children are expected to do so themselves. The Attorney General can waive the requirement “in his discretion and on the basis of reciprocity to such regulations as he may prescribe.”
There is also anecdotal evidence from the 2006 report, Unaccompanied and Separated Children and Refugee Protection in the U.S.: Seeking Asylum Alone, that immigration officials were even then fingerprinting and photographing UACs.
UACs who are required to file ICE Form 1-589, Application for Asylum and or Withholding of Removal, must also submit to “collection of biometrics (such as your photograph, fingerprints, and signature),” when appearing at an Application Support Center (ASC) appointment for intake.
ICE currently is “actively” trying to locate UAC’s who did not appear before a judge to pursue their immigration case under claims made on Form 1-589.
According to DHS, nearly 8,000 UACs disappeared while in the care of sponsors ORR had deemed suitable last year alone. “That’s 7,888 children whose sponsors failed to take them before a federal judge who could have then granted them the right to stay in [the] United States,” ICE has said in a statement to the media. “Instead, 7,888 children from last year alone are now considered fugitives because their ORR approved sponsors, many of whom ORR knew were fugitives prior to placement, predictably failed to bring the child to court.”
Both ICE and DHS officials say the fingerprinting – and the taking of other biometrics – of UACs is vital because of the “enormous” numbers of UACs who have and continue to be victimized by Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) for sex, slavery, pedophilia, and even organ harvesting. Officials say it is incumbent to do so because of the swelling problems with the ORR approved sponsors program, a program that has repeatedly been criticized by Inspectors General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), like GAO’s October 24, 2018 audit report, Efforts to Reunify Children Separated from Parents at the Border.
Biometric Update reported in January that CBP began collecting DNA from any person in CBP custody who is subject to fingerprinting, including aliens as well as United States citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents, as part of “a limited, small-scale pilot program to assess the operational impact of proposed regulatory changes that would require the collection of DNA samples from certain individuals in CBP custody,” which officials have since said can be useful in, among other things, helping to identify human trafficking TCOs exploiting UACs whose biometrics have been collected.
The effort is part of a larger federal initiative intended to “assess the operational impact of a Department of Justice (DOJ) proposed amendment to the regulation that requires the collection of DNA samples from certain individuals and the submission of those samples to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, also known as CODIS.”
CBP said, “the regulations apply to any individuals who are arrested, face charges or are convicted (including US citizens and lawfully permanent residents), as well as to non-United States persons who are detained under the authority of the United States, including certain aliens in CBP custody.”
In August 2018, then-Acting Deputy Assistant Director For Field Operations West of ICE, Robert Guadian, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security And Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations during a hearing on preventing UACs from being victims of human trafficking and abuse, that “(o)n February 19, 2016, DHS and HHS signed a memorandum of agreement regarding the care, custody, and transfer of UACs between our respective departments to continue to address the needs of UACs.”
He also noted that “DHS and HHS signed another MOA on April 13, 2018, to address information exchanges between these departments to enhance cooperation and to put in place additional safeguards, including the fingerprinting by ORR of all potential sponsors and adult household members. ICE then uses fingerprints provided by ORR to complete a check for criminal activity to ensure ORR has as much information as possible when determining the suitability of sponsors, and that the UAC will not be placed in a dangerous situation or fall victim to trafficking.”
“This important document lays out the responsibilities of each department and further delineates these responsibilities to the components and agencies within DHS and HHS,” Guadian told the committee, emphasizing that “DHS cares deeply about UACs in its custody, takes seriously its responsibility to protect them from human smuggling, trafficking, and other criminal actions, and is committed to working with our partners in HHS to ensure that UACs are protected from trafficking and abuse.”
“As part of ORR’s determination of whether an individual is an appropriate sponsor, case managers are required to verify a potential sponsor’s identity and relationship to a child before releasing a child to a sponsor,” the agency said in a statement following the recent blow-up over fingerprinting of UACs, adding that, “Sponsors are responsible for making appropriate custodial decisions while unaccompanied alien children await their immigration hearings.” However, once ORR signs off on a sponsor or guardian and a child is released, the agency’s responsibility ends, which lawmakers and, even some internal ICE and DHS critics, have complained about.
BuzzFeed News though recently reported that an ICE spokesperson said: “in January, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued field guidance to juvenile coordinators to work with Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement to identify and collect fingerprints on unaccompanied alien children at ORR facilities who are over the age of 14, to mitigate and prevent the risk of their victimization by human traffickers and smugglers, and to reduce misidentification.”
The publication added that “it is unclear if the collection is taking place across the country or in certain locations,” and that “the new ICE directive, issued to its juvenile coordinators in January, appears to be the latest Trump administration policy aimed at collecting more personal information about immigrants – including children – who cross the border.”
Consequently, this and follow-up reports have sparked a political brushfire in Washington over UAC biometric collection, which at least some lawmakers have been aware of for some time without having raised objections, according to reports and testimony.
“ICE has taken this necessary step to further protect UACs who may be released to unsafe situations. ORR’s current practice of predominantly relying on documents with biographic information alone rather than fingerprints to confirm sponsor identity and suitability is dangerous and irresponsible,” ICE said in a released statement, noting that “Fraudulent documents and documents obtained by fraud are known to be prevalent at the southwest border. Even though they have been made aware of the potential risks to child safety, in many cases, ORR has willfully elected to rely on these suspect documents instead of fingerprints for the sole purpose of increasing the speed of placement and ignoring the obvious risks to child welfare and safety.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, said in a statement that “President Trump and [White House senior policy adviser] Stephen Miller have turned HHS into an immigration enforcement agency. There should be a bright line between ORR and DHS, and the Trump administration’s insistence on blurring that line is outrageous. ICE officials coming into shelters to fingerprint youngsters in ORR care is antithetical to ORR’s mission, which is to take care of kids and place them into sponsor’s care as safely and expeditiously as possible. Make no mistake: ICE’s intention is to intimidate and scare children by entering these shelters, and if HHS allows ICE to do so, they will be complicit.”
“I do not buy ICE’s justification for one second – that this is to ‘mitigate and prevent the risk of [children’s] victimization by human traffickers and smugglers’ – and I have concerns that the Trump administration is building a repository of biometric information that could be used to criminalize children and their families. If this dangerous new policy was actually about protecting children, it would not have gone into effect without notifying Congress or been leaked out anonymously. I will leverage every resource I have as chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds HHS to ensure this policy is overturned and ORR upholds its mission to protect children, not enforce the racist immigration policies of President Trump and Stephen Miller.”
Ironically, DeLauro was an initial co-sponsor of HR 5210, the Refugee Protection Act of 2019, which includes mandates for biometrics in the course “for the admission and protection of refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable individuals,” and “to provide for the processing of refugees and asylum seekers in the Western Hemisphere, and to modify certain special immigrant visa programs, and for other purposes.”
Introduced in November and on December 19 referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, the bill would require “petitioners for special immigrant status under this section [to] submit biometric and biographic data in accordance with procedures established by the [Department of Homeland Security] Assistant Director of Regional Processing. The Assistant Director shall provide an alternative procedure for applicants who are unable to provide all of the required biometric data due to a physical or mental impairment.” Additionally, “the Assistant Director shall utilize biometric, biographic, and other appropriate data to conduct security and law enforcement background checks of petitioners to determine whether there is any criminal, national security, or other ground that would render the applicant ineligible for special immigrant status under this section.”
Finally, the legislation would also require “The security and law enforcement background checks required under subparagraph (B) [to] be completed, to the satisfaction of the Assistant Director, before the date on which a petition for special immigrant status under this section may be approved.”
Many ICE, DHS, HSI, and officials and agents of other DHS law enforcement agencies find DeLauro’s comments surprising if not askew. As ICE HSI agents have repeatedly stated in recent years, when they find children who are victims of trafficking, without having acquired their fingerprints beforehand, they would have no way to identify them. Further, evidence indicates that not all ORR sponsors or adults vetted as biological parents or family are, in fact, blood relatives. Nor are traffickers or other adults apprehended by Border Patrol or who voluntarily present themselves to CBP Field Operations officers at a Port of Entry who they say they are.
Thus fingerprinting, DNA, and any biometrics collected from UACs at the outset of the immigration process will greatly assist in human trafficking investigations, in particular, DHS says.