Wasserman Schultz Introduces Families, Not Facilities Act in U.S. House to Promote Migrant Child Reunifications

This act would help unaccompanied youth connect more quickly with sponsors by prohibiting DHS from using information from the placement process to conduct deportation proceedings.

Washington, D.C. – Vulnerable, unaccompanied migrant children languish in government detention facilities, and the cruel Trump Administration policy of using the child placement process to arrest and deport potential sponsors is making matters worse. So today, U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) announced the introduction of the bicameral Families, Not Facilities Act of 2019, to help unaccompanied migrant youth more quickly connect with sponsors by prohibiting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from using information from the placement process to conduct deportation proceedings. The companion bill in the U.S. Senate was introduced by Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

From just July to November of last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 170 undocumented immigrants who came forward to become sponsors of undocumented immigrant children. These arrests were made as a result of the Trump Administration’s decision to have the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) share information with DHS for the purpose of immigration enforcement – information sharing that is not necessary to ensure the welfare of the children. Under the last Administration, ORR records were kept separate from DHS, and DHS could only obtain ORR case files on individual children through a formal request process.

“This legislation would return us to the previous policy of not taking potential sponsors’ immigration status into account when making child placements, which avoided subjecting applicants to harsh immigration actions, including detention. We should not be requesting and sharing sponsors immigration status – the best interests of children must always come first,” said Rep. Wasserman Schultz. “Lengthening children’s confinement can have lifelong health and development consequences. These arrests force children to remain in ORR custody longer, and the mere threat of arrest prevents other potential sponsors - many of whom are close family members to the detained children – from coming forward to give these children a home. This cruel betrayal hurts too many innocent children, and it must not continue to obstruct the reunification of families.”

“No potential sponsor who intends to build a safe and nurturing home for an unaccompanied immigrant child should be deterred from coming forward due to fear of a civil ICE enforcement action,” said Senator Harris. “This is leaving these vulnerable children to languish in unacceptable conditions in government custody. Unaccompanied children at the border deserve our compassion and assistance, and we must do more to ensure that our government is respecting the human rights and dignity of the youngest among us.”

“This administration continues to put its hate-filled immigration agenda over the best interests of children,” said Senator Wyden. “If this administration refuses to make sure these kids have the support and care they deserve, then Congress must.”

A survey of individuals involved in the sponsorship process conducted by the Women’s Refugee Commission and National Immigrant Justice Center found that this data sharing agreement led to fewer sponsors, including family members, coming forward out of fear of their information being used for immigration enforcement purposes. And, according to HHS, children are staying in facilities for longer periods of time – in the first quarter of 2019 the average length of stay for unaccompanied youth in HHS custody was 89 days – up from the average of 60 days in 2018.

Wasserman-Schultz attempted to visit a temporary migrant detention facility in Homestead, Florida on Monday, along with U.S. Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26) and Donna Shalala (FL-27), and all were illegally denied entry to conduct oversight of the facility.

Trump Administration officials announced last week that they will, for the second time this year, dramatically expand the number of beds at the Homestead temporary detention facility, from 2,350 to 3,200 later this month. In January federal officials announced plans to expand the Homestead facility from 1,350 beds to 2,350 beds. That would mark a 140 percent increase in child bed capacity in just four months.

“There are family members and sponsors who can provide safe, stable, and loving homes for most of these children, but too many are frightened to come forward as a result of the administration’s inhumane immigration policies,” said Rep. Shalala. “We need to do everything we can to release these children as quickly as possible. After being denied entrance to the Homestead Temporary Shelter, this issue becomes ever-more concerning. What is the shelter hiding? The law clearly states that Members of Congress have the right to conduct oversight of the conditions and well-being of unaccompanied children.”

“I am proud to cosponsor a bill that places the welfare of children first. The Administration’s information sharing policy is cruel and results in vulnerable children residing in prisonlike detention facilities, like the Homestead facility in my district, for indefinite periods of time,” said Rep. Mucarsel-Powell. “Sponsors who are able and willing to provide safe homes must be free to care for these children without fear of retribution. These children deserve a home, not a prison. In many of these facilities, we have no idea what is going on behind those walls. The Advisory Committee on Shelters for Unaccompanied Alien Children created by this bill is an avenue to address this glaring lack of information. I’m proud to cosponsor legislation that provides increased transparency at shelters like the one in Homestead that are going completely unchecked. These children came here looking for a country to welcome them, and we must make sure they are living in safe environments free from abuse and harm.”

Various concerns have been raised about the Homestead facility, from a lack of staffing, space, educational services, and translators for indigenous youth, to the overarching problem of children remaining in the detention facility for far too long. A number of leading immigrant advocacy groups are supporting the Families, Not Facilities Act.

“Yet another abhorrent immigration policy change implemented by the Trump administration has put immigration enforcement agents right in the middle of the process of reunifying refugee children with their families,” said Joann Bautista, Policy Associate for the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The resulting consequences are irreversible, leaving children stranded because their loved ones are too afraid to step forward to sponsor them. The best place for children is to at home with their families, not in a child prison like the facility in Homestead, Florida. While there is still much to be done to ensure children and their families can be reunited without fear of being detained by ICE and deported, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz’s bill is a critical step in the right direction.”

The Families Not Facilities Act would help bring an end to unfettered information-sharing between ORR and immigration enforcement agencies under DHS,” said Leah Chavla, Policy Advisor at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “It would help ensure that unaccompanied children are released safely and quickly from government custody to their families or other appropriate sponsors. This Act would also prioritize oversight on family separations and troubling conditions of detention for unaccompanied children, both of which continue to be critical issues that desperately need attention.”  

"The Families, Not Facilities Act will help reunite children in government care with their families,” said Harrison Rudolph, Associate, Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. “Betraying a child's trust in order to find and deport their loved ones is unconscionable."

This legislation expands upon Wasserman Schultz’s Prevent CHILD Harm Act bill from last Congress. It would also codify language that was included in the FY 19 appropriations package (P.L. 116-6) that prohibited DHS from initiating removal proceedings of sponsors based on information shared by HHS.

The bill would:

  • Prohibit DHS from using information gained from the sponsor placement process to conduct deportation proceedings, except in cases of trafficking, abuse, or neglect.
  • Transfer funding from ICE enforcement and removal to the DHS OIG to investigate child separation.
  • Transfer money to Office of Refugee Resettlement programs intended to provide unaccompanied children with comprehensive social work services.
  • Transfer money to HHS’s Task Force to Prevent and End Human Trafficking.
  • Create the Advisory Committee on Shelters for Unaccompanied Alien Children, comprised of nonprofit immigration and child welfare experts.  The advisory committee would publish public reports on their findings.

The bill is cosponsored in the U.S. House by Representatives by Representatives Pete Aguilar (CA-31), Nanette Barragan (CA-44), Karen Bass (CA-37), Earl Blumenauer (OR-3), Andre Carson (IN-7), Yvette Clarke (NY-9), Steve Cohen (TN-9), Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11), Ted Deutch (FL-22), Lois Frankel (FL-21), Sylvia Garcia (TX-29), Alcee Hastings (FL-20), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Pramila Jayapal (WA-7), Zoe Lofgren (CA-19), Carolyn Maloney (NY-12), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (FL-26), Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Ilhan Omar (MN-5), Ed Perlmutter (CO-7), David Price (NC-4), Raul Ruiz (CA-36), Jan Schakowsky (IL-9), Jose E. Serrano (NY-15), Donna Shalala (FL-27), Adam Smith (WA-9), Joe Wilson (SC-2), and in the U.S. Senate by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Edward Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The bill is supported by the Child Welfare League of America, National Immigrant Justice Center, Kids in Need of Defense, Women’s Refugee Commission, Immigrant Hub, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, Defund Hate Coalition, and Georgetown Center on Privacy & Technology.