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Nearly 14,000 children held in custody, thousands in makeshift cages and tent cities.

Unaccompanied children who crossed the border this year seeking protections in the United States faced new obstacles. In barely one year, the number of detained migrant children at federally contracted shelters increased more than fivefold: in May 2017, there were 2,400 such children in federal custody; as of September, there were approximately 12,800.Caitlin Dickerson, “Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever,” New York Times, September 12, 2018; and Tal Kopan, “The Simple Reason More Immigrant Kids Are In Custody Than Ever Before,” CNN, September 14, 2018.

By December, an official statement from the Department of Homeland Security said it had “seen 13,981 unaccompanied children.”U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen Statement on Passing of Eight Year Old Guatemalan Child” (Washington, DC: DHS, December 26, 2018). And as scrutiny of federal policies for migrant children increased over the summer, a spotlight also fell on the number of these children that the Department of Health and Human Services had simply lost track of over the previous year: about 1,500 total.Amy Wang, “The U.S. Lost Track of 1,475 Immigrant Children Last Year. Here’s Why People Are Outraged Now,” Washington Post, May 29, 2018.

The average length of time that children who arrive in the United States without a guardian spend in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has also increased, more than doubling over the same period from 34 days to 74.Jonathan Blitzer, “To Free Detained Children, Immigrant Families Are Forced to Risk Everything,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018. For historical data, see William A. Kandel, Unaccompanied Alien Children: an Overview (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, 2016), 10. These increases are not due to an influx of children entering the country—a number that has remained relatively unchanged—but to a reduction in the number of children being released to live with family members and other qualified adults due to new policies disqualifying or deterring many sponsors.Caitlin Dickerson, “Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever,” New York Times, September 12, 2018. For example, authorities announced in June that not only potential sponsors but all other adult members of their households would have to submit fingerprints (in December, ORR announced that it would no longer be fingerprinting additional household members, although sponsors would still be required to submit to the process), and that the data would be shared with immigration authorities.Caitlin Dickerson, “Migrant Children Moved Under Cover of Darkness to a Texas Tent City,” New York Times, September 30, 2018. For the modification of the fingerprinting policy, see Dianne Gallagher, Devon M. Sayers, and Geneva Sands, “Feds Reverse Fingerprint Policy in Move Expected to Speed Release of Unaccompanied Children in HHS Custody,” CNN, December 18, 2018. Such policies have acted to discourage relatives and family friends—often undocumented themselves—from coming forward to sponsor children. It has also been reported that for those who do come forward, it can take months to be fingerprinted and have their applications reviewed, and some have even been detained and deported.Dickerson, “Migrant Children Moved Under Cover,” 2018; and Tal Kopan, “ICE Arrested Undocumented Immigrants Who Came Forward to Take in Undocumented Children,” CNN, September 20, 2018.

The ORR ordinarily tries to place children with sponsors or in foster homes rather than in shelters, but to accommodate the influx of children in custody, it moved thousands to a “tent city”—a temporary detention compound constructed of military tents—with few services, in Tornillo, Texas.Dickerson, “Migrant Children Moved Under Cover,” 2018. After public outcry, the tent city was vacated in early 2019, and the government stated that the children had been either released to sponsors or relocated to other shelters.Madlin Mekelburg, “Official: No Migrant Children Remain at Tornillo Tent Shelter as it Heads Toward Closure,” El Paso Times, January 11, 2019; and “Trump Administration Removes All Migrant Teens from Giant Tornillo Tent Camp,” Washington Post, January 11, 2019.

A court document known as the Flores agreement, signed in 1997 as part of the settlement of a class-action suit over migrant children’s rights, governs the treatment of these children, and the Trump administration spent the year looking for ways to weaken or evade it.Caitlin Dickerson, “Trump Administration Moves to Sidestep Restrictions on Detaining Migrant Children,” New York Times, September 6, 2018; and Flores v. Reno, No. CV-85-4544-RJK(Px) (C.D. Cal., November 13, 2014) (settlement agreement). The Flores agreement was designed to expire in five years, but automatically renews unless the government writes and publishes regulations superseding the rules in it.All Things Considered, “The History of the Flores Settlement and Its Effects on Immigration,” NPR, June 22, 2018. Faced with repeated court defeats over compliance with these rules governing the length and conditions of detention for children, the administration is trying a new tactic: finally establishing the referenced new rules, but significantly reducing their scope by proposing to eliminate many protections for children, including limits on the time a minor can be detained and state inspection requirements for facilities housing children.Dickerson, “Trump Administration Moves to Sidestep Restrictions,” 2018.