The Biden administration rescinded a 2018 agreement between the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services that encouraged child welfare officers to share sensitive personal information about potential sponsors for unaccompanied children with immigration enforcement agents.
The move is part of a larger effort to reduce the number of children in U.S. custody by encouraging family members and other potential sponsors – regardless of their own legal status - to come forward to take care of unaccompanied minors.
An administration official says the decision "sends a really strong signal" that the Office of Refugee Resettlement and HHS are not involved in immigration enforcement.
"We are our child welfare agency," said a senior administration official. "We are not an immigration enforcement agency."
The Biden administration is struggling with a rapidly increasing number of children traveling without parents arriving at the border. A record number of unaccompanied minors are being held in warehouse-like detention facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection near the southern border.
DHS documents obtained by NPR show that more hospitable shelters that can have bunk beds, video games, classrooms, medical facilities and ball fields are already at 94% capacity.
The number of children being referred to Health and Human Services is growing almost three times faster than social workers are able to find appropriate homes for the children.
When the memorandum was signed under the Trump administration, it sparked fears that enforcement agents would use information obtained by HHS to detain and deport immigrant adults who came forward to sponsor children family members in U.S. custody.
Biden administration officials said the Trump administration created "a chilling effect" where family members and sponsors were afraid to come forward for fear of being deported.
"Whatever we can do to encourage those family members and sponsors to come forward more quickly, we need to be doing," the official said.
The Biden administration is also re-starting the Central American Minors program to reunite children with a parent who is legally in the United States.