A record high 14,000 migrant children are in U.S. government custody, as the White House implements its hard-line stance on immigration.
“Currently, there are approximately 14,000 minors in the unaccompanied alien children program, a number that can fluctuate up or down,” Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said Friday in a statement to The Hill. “The Trump Administration continues to enforce current laws to address our nation’s crisis at the border.”
The San Francisco Chronicle first reported the record number.
The news comes as thousands of Central American migrants, including women and children, make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border, with many intending to seek asylum from violence in their home countries.
The White House faced intense public backlash over its immigration practices earlier this year when it implemented a “zero tolerance” policy earlier this year that resulted in the separation of thousands of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. President Trump ended the policy in June.
However, the number of migrant children in HHS custody continues to rise in part because of an agency agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reached earlier this year that allows ICE to conduct background checks on potential sponsors, delaying the release of children from government custody.
Stauffer said the number of minors is in U.S. custody is “a symptom of the larger problem, namely a broken immigration system that encourages them to make the hazardous journey.”
“Unaccompanied alien children are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse,” she added. “This is why HHS joins the President in calling on Congress to reform this broken system.”
The Trump administration has recently announced additional hardline policies on immigration that could further increase the number of children in government custody.
Besides ordering thousands of troops to the southern border, Trump signed a proclamation last week blocking immigrants who illegally enter the U.S. from claiming asylum, a move that will likely lead to more migrants in detention facilities.
ICE’s acting director, Ronald Vitiello, said Thursday that separating families at the border could be an option for deterring migrants from entering the U.S. illegally.
“We’ll get less people bringing their children,” Vitiello told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday. “It is an option.”
The White House is also considering a policy that would give detained parents awaiting deportation hearings the option of either remaining detained with their children for an indefinite amount of time or allowing their children to be separated and taken to a government shelter for another relative or guardian to take custody of them.