The tide of unaccompanied migrant children continues to flow through our borders. This week, UNICEF released a new report which details the risky journey that children take to enter the United States.
As UNICEF notes, in the first six months of 2016, almost 26,000 unaccompanied migrant children were encountered on the US border with Mexico. Thousands more never made it to the border – they were “apprehended, kidnapped, trafficked, murdered, or [fell] victim [to] the harsh environment along the way.”
Although these numbers are down from their peak in 2014, they still represent a significant humanitarian challenge for the United States. Congress has already allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to address the root causes of this crisis and assist the unaccompanied children who make it into the country. Yet they keep coming.
One of the thorniest issues facing Federal agencies is how to establish the true identities of unaccompanied children, allowing the government to make an informed decision about their welfare.
The vast majority of unaccompanied migrant children arrive with no paperwork. This is often by design – passports or national ID cards would establish a country to send the children back to.
In these situations, the responsibility belongs with the Department of Homeland Security and the court system to create an identity from scratch. That identity then becomes the basis for action – release to a parent or relative in the United States, return to their home country, housing in a temporary facility, etc.
Under normal conditions, fingerprints are the standard for establishing and verifying identity in US border control procedures. By law, adults are required to submit their fingerprints upon entry to the United States. This allows authorities to link people to identity documents – a critical tool for combatting fraud.
DHS policy waives this requirement for children under fourteen, however. Part of this is due to the changes which slowly occur in the fingerprints of children, making them unreliable for long-term identification purposes. The lingering association of fingerprinting with criminality also makes the “optics” of this politically challenging – although the widespread use of fingerprints in consumer phones may be eroding that association.
In the standard border control environment, it makes sense to exempt children under fourteen from the fingerprinting requirement. Yet in this special circumstance, fingerprinting children may be a necessary measure to protect their safety and well-being.
In the absence of reliable documentation or biometric records, the child’s immigration file becomes their only form of identification. As they progress through court procedures and housing centers, there is currently no way to confirm that unaccompanied migrant children are who their file says they are. There is no way for authorities to confirm that the right children are being housed in the right facility, released to their parents, or even returned to the right country.
When the welfare of these children is at stake, the certainty of biometrics as a form of identity has distinct advantages. For adults, the judicial system currently uses irises – the most accurate biometric identifier – to ensure that the right people are being arraigned, transferred, or released. A similar system could be put in place to secure the welfare of these vulnerable children and maintain the fidelity of their identities.
Creating this identity management system would be relatively inexpensive, but it would require a great deal of interagency cooperation to manage. Questions of privacy, access, and use would have to be carefully thought through. Yet at a basic level, the investment has a clear payoff – it would ensure that no unaccompanied migrant child slips through the cracks.