Partly in an effort to protect the children themselves, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has just announced a new policy priority: It plans to arrest parents and other relatives who smuggle children into the U.S. or hire coyotes to do so.

This “surge initiative” is meant to dismantle human smuggling organizations. Part of the “surge” will involve identifying coyotes and other smugglers. Another part involves arresting sponsors — usually parents or family members –who put their children into the smugglers’ hands.

“The sponsors who have placed children directly into harm’s way by entrusting them to violent criminal organizations will be held accountable,” said an ICE spokesperson.

Not only the smugglers and family members will suffer, unfortunately. Any unaccompanied children encountered during the “surge” will be housed with a verified relative, put in foster care, or placed with the Office of Refugee Resettlement — typically to live in a detention center.

Move expected to cause a wave of fear through immigrant communities

“Arresting those who come forward to sponsor unaccompanied children during their immigration proceedings, often parents, is unimaginably cruel,” said a spokesperson for the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, which has matched thousands of unaccompanied-minor immigrants with free lawyers over the past eight years.

“This sends a signal to young people who would cross the border not to cross, or your relatives will be placed in removal proceedings,” said a former Justice Department official from the Obama administration who believes the new policy will be challenged in court.

“This is a policy change to say a minor is no longer to be treated as a person worthy of our sympathy, but instead to be treated as another unlawful entrant whose entrance must deterred at all costs,” he added.

Young migrants face abuse, suffering, lack of legal help

Since 2013, some 170,000 unaccompanied-minor immigrants have come to America. Most were fleeing drug-trade and gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and the majority have yet to have a court hearing.

Some have not been treated well. As ICE officials noted, there have been incidents in which migrant youth in federal detention have been placed with human traffickers or recruited by gangs. Others have been injured, sexually abused or locked in tractor trailers.

Last year, a bipartisan congressional investigation and a probe by the Associated Press found that ICE’s own inadequate screening was at fault for at least some of the incidents of mistreatment.

Officials from ICE would not respond to questions about how many family-sponsors had been targeted for arrest. Some immigrant advocates are already questioning three arrests in Texas, Virginia and New Jersey.