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.”