As President Joe Biden’s administration grapples with how to house thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, advocates say ending a long-standing practice of separating children from caretaking relatives would help reduce overcrowding in U.S. government custody, reports Reuters. Under U.S. immigration law, families are narrowly defined as children and their parents or legal guardians. Children separated from grandparents, aunts, older siblings and other relatives are classified as “unaccompanied” and sent to shelters or foster care overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) until they can be released to a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or close family member.
Immigrant advocates say the separations are unnecessary, arguing that thousands of children could stay out of the shelter system if they were released with their accompanying relatives to pursue U.S. asylum cases in immigration court. Since November, a handful of nonprofit groups that work with unaccompanied children have compiled tallies showing that as many as 10-17 percent of children in custody were separated from relatives. About 11,900 children were in HHS shelters and nearly 5,800 children were in border patrol custody as of March 28. Immigrant advocacy groups are working on a provision they hope will be included in the upcoming U.S. government spending bill that would fund reception centers where children could remain with non-parent family members and be evaluated by child welfare experts for a joint release.