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

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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