Trump Admin Is Scrubbing Information About Services for Migrant Children From Government Websites

Under Trump, government websites are more frequently using derogatory language to refer to migrant children.

Jim Daley October 3, 2019

A U.S. Border Patrol agent prepares to take an unaccompanied Salvadorian minor, 13, to a processing center after he crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Since Don­ald Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, the Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices’ Admin­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies (ACF) has sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly altered lan­guage and removed infor­ma­tion about unac­com­pa­nied migrant chil­dren from the web­site of the Office of Refugee Reset­tle­ment (ORR), the agency that over­sees the children’s cus­tody after they are trans­ferred from the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. The changes are detailed in a new report by the Sun­light Foun­da­tion, a trans­paren­cy watch­dog orga­ni­za­tion. The ORR web­site changed how it refer to unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren, instead call­ing them unac­com­pa­nied alien” chil­dren, or UACs. The web­site also reduced its empha­sis on ser­vices and ben­e­fits avail­able to chil­dren and refugees, and made fre­quent alter­ations — appar­ent­ly in response to media enquiries and crit­i­cisms, accord­ing to the report.

Researchers at the Sun­light Foundation’s Web Integri­ty Project com­pared a snap­shot of the ORR web­site from Jan­u­ary 19, 2017 to how it appeared at var­i­ous time points up until ear­ly August 2019. Before Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, the ORR web­site includ­ed the term alien” 103 times. As of this August, the word appeared 720 times. The addi­tions often occurred in the con­text of chang­ing the term unac­com­pa­nied child” to unac­com­pa­nied alien child.” That shift was most notable in a pol­i­cy guide about unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren; across the guide’s nine URLs, near­ly all uses of the phrase unac­com­pa­nied child” were removed, and instances of the word alien” increased to 553. Pri­or to Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, alien” appeared in the guide just 10 times, accord­ing to the report. Many of these changes occurred between June and August 2017, when the agency’s fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion pol­i­cy was being wide­ly criticized.

Sarah John, the direc­tor of the Web Integri­ty Project, said one rea­son ORR has juris­dic­tion over unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren, rather than immi­gra­tion agen­cies or Home­land Secu­ri­ty, is because of the unique vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of chil­dren and the need to ensure they are prop­er­ly cared for.” But the Trump administration’s hard­line atti­tude towards immi­grants while the num­ber of unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren seek­ing asy­lum was increas­ing led to a fail­ure to pro­vide the chil­dren prop­er care, she explained. The administration’s zero-tol­er­ance pol­i­cy toward migrants seek­ing asy­lum result­ed in the sep­a­ra­tion of at least 2,235 fam­i­lies between May 5 and June 9 of 2018 alone, accord­ing to one analy­sis. On the web­site, we see this tough posi­tion man­i­fest as a harshen­ing of the lan­guage to align with the admin­is­tra­tion’s view, a reel­ing back of lan­guage about the scope of ser­vices chil­dren are enti­tled to, per­haps to low­er expec­ta­tions about care, and an extreme defen­sive­ness about agency actions in response to pub­lic out­rage,” John explains. 

In a state­ment emailed to In These Times, the ACF said that the agency inher­it­ed” its use of the term alien” from the for­mer Immi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice. But the WIP report not­ed that as of May 2017, the ORR website’s def­i­n­i­tions page still said that ORR uses the term unac­com­pa­nied child instead of the term UAC.”

John said that while the new lan­guage is tech­ni­cal­ly in line with the word­ing of the Home­land Secu­ri­ty Act, which cre­at­ed the ORR pro­gram for unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren in 2002, the ORR had not used that term before. It’s much harsh­er; alien’ has cer­tain con­no­ta­tions,” John said. It makes peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing seem less like people.”

Mason Kortz, a clin­i­cal instruc­tor at the Har­vard Law School Cyber­law Clin­ic, who was not involved in prepar­ing the report, said the changes are indica­tive of a gen­er­al agen­da by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to dehu­man­ize immi­grants. It’s a clear sign of how the admin­is­tra­tion wants the Amer­i­can pub­lic to view immi­grants, as some­thing very much oth­er, lit­er­al­ly alien to them­selves,” he said.

The report also describes how ORR removed ref­er­ences to ser­vices it pro­vides to chil­dren. Among oth­er changes, a fact sheet on ser­vices pro­vid­ed to unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren removed infor­ma­tion about legal aid avail­able to chil­dren, the con­di­tions chil­dren expe­ri­ence in HHS-fund­ed facil­i­ties, and pro­ce­dures for allow­ing chil­dren to com­mu­ni­cate with their par­ents all disappeared.

In its state­ment to In These Times, the ACF said, We treat the chil­dren in our care with dig­ni­ty and respect.” But lan­guage allud­ing to this posi­tion was also removed from the web­site: A pas­sage about treat­ing chil­dren with dig­ni­ty, respect, and spe­cial con­cern for indi­vid­ual needs” dis­ap­peared from the Ser­vices Fact Sheet in 2018.

Kortz said the reduced empha­sis on ser­vices and ben­e­fits may indi­cate that the stat­ed pur­pose of the ORR — which, accord­ing to the agency, includes link­ing [immi­grants] to crit­i­cal resources” — is being sub­vert­ed by a larg­er, anti-immi­grant agen­da that exists with­in the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty. Mak­ing ser­vices and ben­e­fits hard­er to find, hard­er to access, is reflec­tive of that,” Kortz said.

Accord­ing to the report, the ORR has also react­ed quick­ly to media reports on con­di­tions in its facil­i­ties by chang­ing and adding new sec­tions to its web­site. Months before its fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion pol­i­cy was announced in June 2018, the agency removed a staff direc­to­ry from the web­site, per­haps antic­i­pat­ing like­ly blow­back. And in the weeks after Trump signed an exec­u­tive order on June 20, 2018, end­ing fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tions, the ORR made repeat­ed changes to its Unac­com­pa­nied Chil­dren Fre­quent­ly Asked Ques­tions page. It removed infor­ma­tion about non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that accept dona­tions to help refugee fam­i­lies. And it added a state­ment alleg­ing that in recent days, a great deal of mis­in­for­ma­tion about the UAC pro­gram” had been inten­tion­al­ly” per­pet­u­at­ed, pre­sum­ably by the media. It also added images of clean and spa­cious class­rooms and dor­mi­to­ries at ORR facil­i­ties around the same time. Else­where, the agency added con­tent relat­ed to sex­u­al abuse to the web­site around the same time a ProP­ub­li­ca report exposed a pat­tern of such abuse at more than 70 ORR shelters.

Kortz said he thinks the changes in response to media scruti­ny direct­ly reflects not just the atti­tude of the [Trump] admin­is­tra­tion, but the per­son­al­i­ty of the pres­i­dent — specif­i­cal­ly, his sen­si­tiv­i­ty to media criticism.”

John said that the lan­guage gov­ern­ment agen­cies use on their web­sites mat­ters. It can affect how cit­i­zens view their rights, pol­i­cy issues, and oth­ers in soci­ety,” she said. If the agency in charge of car­ing for unac­com­pa­nied chil­dren uses less and less human­iz­ing lan­guage about chil­dren on its web­site it may con­tribute to changes in how Amer­i­cans talk, think, and feel about immi­grant chil­dren, espe­cial­ly their lev­el of empa­thy or sym­pa­thy toward unac­com­pa­nied children.”

Jim Daley is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. See more of his writ­ing at jim​da​ley​writes​.com.
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