U.S. encourages parents and relatives of migrant children to come forward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. health officials will limit the information they share with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to try to persuade more parents and relatives of unaccompanied migrant children to come forward and take the minors into custody, U.S. officials said on Friday during a call with reporters.

FILE PHOTO: Asylum seeking unaccompanied minors are transported in a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle after they crossed the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on a raft in Penitas, Texas, March 9, 2021. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and ICE will roll back an April 2018 information-sharing agreement between the agencies as part of U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to deal with a rising number of children arriving at the border, the officials said.

Immigrant advocates had criticized the agreement, saying it discouraged potential sponsors from coming forward due to fears they or their family members could be deported.

“This makes really clear that this administration prioritizes uniting a child with their family member or sponsor,” one official said on the call.

The number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has climbed in recent months as Biden, a Democrat, has reversed some of the restrictive policies put in place by former President Donald Trump, a Republican.

More than 3,600 migrant children were being held in U.S. border facilities as of Thursday morning, a U.S. official told Reuters, more than four times the number in late February. The increase signals a growing humanitarian and political crisis for the Biden administration seven weeks into his presidency.

Biden faces pressure from Republicans and some Democrats to address the rising border arrests, but his administration does not currently plan to seek additional funding from Congress, another one of the officials said on Friday.

HHS will continue to share sponsors’ home addresses with ICE through a discharge form related to a child’s immigration court case, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and HHS have signed a new agreement governing how information related to unaccompanied minors can be shared, DHS said in a news release on Friday.

The new agreement drops a Trump-era provision that had required U.S. health officials to share the fingerprints of sponsors with ICE.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which operates shelters for unaccompanied minors, said in a written statement that the fingerprinting policy had “a significant chilling effect” on the willingness of sponsors to come forward.

Reporting by Ted Hesson and Jarrett Renshaw in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller