01/07/2017 9:24 AM AEST

Trump Administration Accused Of Using Immigrant Kids As 'Bait' To Catch Parents

WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration is using information gathered from immigrant children apprehended at the border to go after the relatives who paid for them to travel to the U.S., often to escape violence at home or reunite with their families.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed that their “surge initiative” against human smuggling operations, first reported by McClatchy on Thursday, is targeting, among others, those who pay for unaccompanied minors to be brought into the U.S. without authorization.

To find those so-called sponsors ― usually members of the children’s family ― the government is using the kids as “bait,” immigrant rights advocates allege.

“Don’t be fooled here by claims that this is an effort by the government to protect children from smugglers,” Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission said Friday on a call with reporters. “What we’re seeing here is the United States government using children as bait with the clear intent of punishing parents and deterring them from protecting their children.”

Advocates said they had heard of about a dozen recent cases of ICE questioning sponsors of minors who came to the U.S. without a parent.

An undocumented woman in Texas said two ICE agents showed up at her house on Friday to ask about one of her sons, both of whom are officially in government custody after entering the U.S. without authorization earlier this month, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. The nonprofit group operates a foster care program that is currently looking after the two boys.

The woman said the ICE agents asked her about her legal status and why she brought the one son to the U.S. and told her she could face criminal charges, according to the Lutheran nonprofit. She said the agents told her they received information from Customs and Border Protection, which had earlier questioned her children, who are both under the age of 13. ICE did not arrest her, at least for now.

She left El Salvador, the woman said, because she was a victim of domestic violence and sent for her sons after they were threatened by gang members, according to the nonprofit group.

Many people, including children, seek safety in the U.S. for the same reasons, immigrant rights advocates pointed out. The number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border has dropped in recent months, but there are still thousands of children coming. CBP picked up more than 31,000 kids traveling without their parents from October of last year to the end of May.

Given the violence and other dangers that some people face in Central America, the advocates warned that children won’t stop coming to the U.S. Parents or other relatives already in this country often have no legal options for bringing in the children, other than to have them enter without authorization and then seek asylum or other relief.

The Trump administration denying migrant and refugee children the care of a loved one in favor of incarceration is beyond the pale.Cory Smith of Kids in Need of Defense

But the journey to the U.S. can be highly dangerous in itself. That is one reason, ICE argues, to target those who pay smugglers to bring children here.

“The risks associated with smuggling children into the U.S. present a constant humanitarian threat,” ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said in a statement. “The sponsors who have placed children directly into harm’s way by entrusting them to violent criminal organizations will be held accountable for their role in these conspiracies.”

ICE declined to provide further information about how many people have been arrested in the surge initiative or what exactly it entails. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Immigrant rights advocates said that they don’t oppose efforts to combat smuggling networks, but that it’s wrong to do so by targeting family members of unaccompanied minors who have few other choices for fleeing their countries.

“Our concern is that they are punishing the victims,” said Jessica Jones, policy counsel at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, speaking on the same call with reporters.

Groups that work with unaccompanied minors have seen a major reduction in people coming forward to take the kids once they’ve been apprehended, Jones said. When children are picked up without their parents, they go into Office of Refugee Resettlement custody until the government can find a sponsor to look after them as they undergo immigration proceedings. In the past, sponsors came forward about 90 percent of the time; now it’s down to less than a third, Jones said.

The latest enforcement operation could deter more sponsors from coming forward, which would put a strain on government resources and potentially run afoul of a 1997 court settlement that restricts the length of time the government can detain undocumented minors.

Any enforcement effort targeting those who try to bring in their children is “amoral and expensive,” Cory Smith of Kids in Need of Defense told reporters on Friday.

“The Trump administration denying migrant and refugee children the care of a loved one in favor of incarceration is beyond the pale,” he said.