A record number of unaccompanied immigrant children, about 14,000, are currently in US custody, a Health and Human Services spokesman said Friday.
The spokesman, Mark Weber, said the additional requirements put in place by the Trump administration to “reduce risk and increase safety” for immigrant children contributed to the high number.
“We are taking all possible steps to protect children in an environment with many bad actors,” Weber said. “We are balancing speed with safety and will err on the side of safety.”
The San Francisco Chronicle and Houston Chronicle earlier reported the figure.
Last spring, the Trump administration heightened scrutiny of adults coming forward to take care of the immigrant children, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement now conducts exhaustive screenings of the adults. But many of them are undocumented themselves and fearful of ICE obtaining their information.
These Trump administration policies are likely keeping these children in custody.
Lawsuits have also accused the administration of extending children’s stays, including allegedly holding them intentionally until they turn 18 and are eligible for stricter adult detention. Many of the children do have a legal right to stay in the US, but the legal process can take years.
Weber said the high number was also due to the 50,000 Department of Homeland Security referrals of unaccompanied children this year, which he said is the third-highest annual total. DHS referred 59,170 unaccompanied children to HHS in fiscal year 2016, according to a HHS fact sheet, and 40,810 in fiscal year 2017.
The number of children in custody changes daily because of referrals by DHS and HHS releases of children to sponsors, Weber said.
Most of these children arrived in the US unaccompanied. Children separated under Trump’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy account for less than 200 of the reported 14,000. CNN reported earlier this month there are still 171 children separated from their families, four months after a judge ordered the US government to reunite the undocumented immigrant families it had split up at the border, according to court documents.
In 2016, the monthly average of the number of children in HHS’s care ranged from just over 4,000 to over 9,000.
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.