Washington (CNN) — 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.”
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.
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.
The number of children in custody changes daily because of referrals by DHS and HHS releases of children to sponsors, Weber said.