Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have begun fingerprinting 14 and older unaccompanied migrant children in immigration shelters, in a move ICE claims will better protect them and combat what it calls “fraud.” The pilot program, first reported on in October by The New York Times, will collect fingerprint samples from those who seek asylum, including children, and share results with law enforcement agencies.
The program, called the Privacy Impact Assessment, was unveiled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Jan 6. and mandates that officials collect DNA samples from certain individuals who come into custody under the guise of identifying “risks” like “fraudulent family units,” or groups, it claims, made to look like families for trafficking purposes. The program is still in its pilot stage, but in full force it could affect over 700,000 immigrants a year, according to the Center of Public Integrity. According to DHS officials, the program is permitted under the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005, despite the fact that the 2005 act only requires those arrested on federal charges to provide DNA samples. The Trump administration, however, claims the act can be expanded to include detained immigrants.
While it is unclear if the collections are occurring nationwide or in certain locations, not all who are being fingerprinted are in custody. According to BuzzFeed News, unaccompanied children in shelters are also being targeted.“In January, [ICE] issued field guidance to juvenile coordinators to work with [HHS’] Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to identify and collect fingerprints on unaccompanied alien children (UACs) at ORR facilities who are over the age of 14, to mitigate and prevent the risk of their victimization by human traffickers and smugglers, and to reduce misidentification,” a senior ICE official told BuzzFeed News.
The issue first caused concern in 2018, when under the Trump administration, HHS signed an agreement with ICE that allowed ICE officials to check the immigration status of and collect biometrics from people who took custody of unaccompanied minors. There was no guarantee that information would not be shared with law enforcement. Fingerprints could be collected from any adult in the child’s potential household, and garnered fear that implementation of such a rule would result in a decline in family members retrieving children from custody. According to congressional testimony and a report from the Government Accountability Office, 2018 saw an 18% decrease in the number of family members who picked up unaccompanied minors from custody as opposed to three years prior.
“It causes an incredible amount of stress—the kids were seeing it as scary and frustrating,” Jennifer Podkul, director for policy and advocacy at Kids In Need of Defense told BuzzFeed News. According to Podkul, children over 14 who apply for immigration benefits with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) already provide their fingerprints.
While many argue that the new rule will cause distress to children, ICE officials claim it will create safer environments and protect children. “ICE has taken this necessary step to further protect UACs who may be released to unsafe situations. ORR’s current practice of predominantly relying on documents with biographic information alone rather than fingerprints to confirm sponsor identity and suitability is dangerous and irresponsible. Fraudulent documents and documents obtained by fraud are known to be prevalent at the southwest border,” a senior ICE official said, according to BuzzFeed News. “Even though they have been made aware of the potential risks to child safety, in many cases, ORR has willfully elected to rely on these suspect documents instead of fingerprints for the sole purpose of increasing the speed of placement and ignoring the obvious risks to child welfare and safety.”
The fingerprinting, the official added, is a quick process that allows for investigators to identify children who may have been smuggled in. “Capturing the UACs photo and fingerprints will allow law enforcement entities to identify children who are trafficked, smuggled, forced into sweatshops or even the sex trade,” the official said.
This new program seems to be another attempt at discriminating against immigrants and migrant children. Adding those without a criminal history to a national database does not prevent crimes from occurring nor is it clear how it will prevent “fraud.” Policies as such only add to the trauma immigrants face in detention. Despite a 2017 Gallup Poll indicating Americans believe immigrants make crime worse, the Marshall Project compared studies and found no link between immigration and increased crime; instead, crime rates decreased in areas with high immigration.
According to BuzzFeed News, approximately 15,000 unaccompanied children were in immigrant shelters in 2018; that number has dropped significantly to over 3,000, as of early January.