NEW YORK (Reuters) - Many of the immigration initiatives launched by the Trump administration in recent weeks target one kind of migrant: children.
The measures are aimed at expelling young people already in the United States illegally and preventing new ones from crossing into the country.
Some of the policy shifts have generated headlines, including Trump’s decision in September to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. That measure, put in place by former President Barack Obama in 2012, allowed nearly 800,000 young people brought to the United States illegally as children the ability to live, work and study in the country without fear of deportation.
Other proposals and actions have received far less attention.
The Trump administration has recently intensified scrutiny of abused and neglected foreign minors applying to stay in the United States. It is seeking to restrict who qualifies for special protections granted to children crossing the border alone. And it is stepping up prosecutions of adults who paid smugglers to bring unaccompanied kids to the United States.
The White House also announced this fall it will end a program allowing Central American minors to apply for U.S. asylum while still living abroad. At the same time, the administration is exploring ways to scrap legal protections that limit how long and under what conditions children can be held in immigration detention centers.
In response to questions about the changes in immigration policy focused on children, the White House said that relevant agencies were reviewing ways to help “law enforcement professionals to do their jobs and keep the country safe.”
(For a graphic on Trump policies targeting young immigrants, see: tmsnrt.rs/2zaT2BK)
Trump came to office promising to crack down on immigration. That message grew stronger this week in the wake of a terrorist attack in New York by a 29-year-old immigrant awarded a green card through a visa lottery program the president has now vowed to end.
Some of his messaging on child immigrants also reflects security concerns. In a speech in Long Island in July, Trump called out “alien minors” as responsible for gang-related killings in the United States.
“These are animals,” he said of members of the notorious Central American gang MS-13.
In addition, the administration says it wants to prevent children from undertaking perilous journeys to the United States and eliminate fraud from programs for young immigrants.
“The President wants to stop the incentives for vulnerable children to come here illegally,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech in Texas in October. In another speech last month, he blamed “dirty immigration lawyers” for encouraging clients to game the process.
Some immigration advocates see the president’s focus on young border crossers differently. Children are perceived sympathetically by the public and have more legal protections than other immigrants, giving authorities less flexibility to deport them, they say.
It is “in the administration’s interest to paint unaccompanied children as gang bangers and not as asylum seekers fleeing violence and abuse,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Michael Tan. “The administration wants the public to perceive these children as monsters and not people deserving of refuge.”
President Trump is not the first president to try to crack down on minors crossing the border illegally. Obama prioritized the removal of young immigrants after the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border peaked at more than 68,000 in 2014, most of them from violence-torn Central America.
Trump campaigned on a promise to toughen enforcement further, saying Obama’s policies had failed. After he took office early in 2017, apprehensions of unaccompanied minors dropped sharply, to a low of just over 990 in April from more than 4,400 in January.
But the number of arrests has begun rising again, with nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors caught in August, according to government data.
One target of the administration is a legal agreement dating back to 1997 that bars the government from holding child immigrants for long periods.
The so-called Flores settlement addressed what advocates said were harsh conditions for kids held in immigration detention facilities. To settle a class-action lawsuit, the government agreed to release minors quickly to adult relatives or licensed childcare programs, or to put them in the “least restrictive” setting possible if other options were not available.
Faced with 2014 surge in illegal crossings, the Obama administration fought broad legal interpretations of the agreement in court to make it easier to detain families. The Trump White House now wants to scrap it altogether.
An internal memo dated Sept. 8 written by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and reviewed by Reuters called the two-decade-old legal agreement “unworkable,” and presented four options to fight or end it. Among them: DHS could ask a federal court to dissolve the Flores deal, a move the memo acknowledged could prove difficult given past rulings that have bolstered the agreement.
A DHS spokesperson said the agency would not comment on “internal working documents.”
The administration is focused not just on stopping illegal border crossings by children but also on limiting their ability to stay once they reach the United States.
One of its targets is SIJS, or special immigrant juvenile status, a program for foreign minors who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.
To qualify, children have to prove their mistreatment in U.S. family court, after which they are protected from deportation and allowed to apply for green cards.
SIJS applications ballooned following the 2014 surge in unaccompanied minors. The program’s numbers hit 19,475 in the 2016 fiscal year, a more than 1,000 percent increase from 1,646 in fiscal year 2010.
The White House and immigration hard-liners in Congress say lawyers have taken advantage of the program by using it for kids who are not in the kind of peril the statute was intended to address. Chief among their complaints is that children abandoned by one parent can apply for SIJS even if another parent is providing adequate care. The administration is already taking steps to limit the program.
Immigration attorneys say government scrutiny of SIJS petitions has increased, slowing the approval process and leaving kids in limbo.
Approvals from April to June totaled 1,862, down more than 50 percent from the previous three-month period, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
USCIS acknowledged that it has stepped up scrutiny of petitions “to ensure that they meet criteria for approval.” But the agency stressed that the majority of applications are still approved.
From January through June of this year 5,671 SIJS petitions were approved while 403 applications were denied. Meanwhile pending applications are ballooning, totaling 22,745 through June, as new petitions grow.
The delays are creating confusion for young immigrants such as 20-year-old Drucilla.
She says her mother neglected her after bringing her to the United States illegally from Jamaica when she was three years old following her father’s murder. Drucilla eventually moved in with an aunt in New York and applied for SIJS last year in order to stay in the country.
Drucilla, who asked only be identified by her first name, said she is nervous about the outcome of her case after U.S. officials recently requested additional documents to substantiate her claims.
“Growing up, nothing was ever in my control,” she said. “I have a lot of anxiety.”
See how the administration’s actions affect people, communities, institutions and companies at The Trump Effect www.reuters.com/trump-effect
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Sue Horton and Marla Dickerson