SAN FRANCISCO — The Trump administration said Friday it will begin arresting parents and others who hire smugglers to bring their children into the U.S., a move that sent a shudder through immigrant communities around the country.
The new “surge initiative” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement marks the latest get-tough approach to immigration by the federal government since President Donald Trump took office. The government says the effort aims to break up human smuggling operations, including arresting people who pay smugglers to get children across the U.S. border.
That marks a sharp departure from policies in place under President Barack Obama’s administration, during which time tens of thousands of young people fleeing spiraling gang and drug violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador crossed the border. The children are then placed with “sponsors” — typically parents, close relatives or family friends who care for the minors while they attend school and their case goes through the immigration court system.
The government now says it plans to arrest the sponsors.
“ICE aims to disrupt and dismantle end-to-end the illicit pathways used by transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling facilitators,” agency spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said. “The sponsors who have placed children directly into harm’s way by entrusting them to violent criminal organizations will be held accountable.”
Officials did not respond to questions Friday seeking details on the number of sponsors who would be targeted or already had been arrested, or what charges would be applied. Immigrant advocacy groups said they were investigating a dozen arrests that may involve sponsors, including the arrest of an unaccompanied child’s brother in Texas, as well as other cases in Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia.
On Friday, ICE officials told an El Salvadoran mother who sponsored her 11- and 12-year-old sons to live with her in Texas that she could face criminal charges for bringing her children to the U.S., according to federal contractor Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. ICE officials told the mother they got her information from Customs and Border Patrol, which had detained her sons a few days ago before they began the paperwork to be placed with their mother, the contractor said.
“Arresting those who come forward to sponsor unaccompanied children during their immigration proceedings, often parents, is unimaginably cruel,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that has matched thousands of unaccompanied minors with attorneys in the last eight years. “Without caregivers to come forward, many of these children will languish in costly detention centers or be placed in foster care at great expense to states.”