On Aug. 16, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on what federal agencies are doing – or rather, aren’t doing enough of – to protect unaccompanied migrant children from abuse and human trafficking once they enter the U.S.
Witnesses from the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice were questioned by senators about their agencies’ role in keeping these children (“Unaccompanied Alien Children,” or “UAC” in government-speak) safe, both while they are in U.S. custody and after they are released to an adult. Many of the most heated exchanges took place between a number of senators and Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Commander White formerly served as Deputy Director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency charged with caring for unaccompanied children, and is now assigned to the HHS Office for Preparedness and Response. Senators grilled Commander White over the agency’s failure to keep track of immigrant children after they leave government custody; recently, officials were unable to determine the whereabouts of nearly 1,500 of the more 7,600 than children who were released from U.S. custody from October to December 2017.
White repeatedly made the case that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, do not have the authority to oversee children after they exit ORR care. Several senators, including Subcommittee Chair Rob Portman (R-OH), vehemently disagreed, asserting that ORR does in fact have the authority from Congress, and that ORR is falling short in its mission to protect immigrant children once they leave detention shelters. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) also pushed back hard when Commander White said that his agency provided “excellent care” for the children while they were in ORR’s custody, citing recent reports of children suffering physical, psychological, and sexual abuse while in U.S. detention centers.
The hearing came a day after the subcommittee’s top Republican and Democrat Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE) jointly released a report outlining how HHS and other government agencies are falling short when it comes to keeping immigrant children safe after they are turned over to adult sponsors. The report cites failures throughout the federal government. In addition to repeating the finding that ORR was not able to verify the whereabouts of about 20 percent of children three months after they were placed with sponsors, the report says that HHS has “directed its legal service grantees to cease providing legal representation to new UACs placed with sponsors because it believes its authority to provide such services is ‘shaky.’” With less legal representation, more children are failing to appear for immigration court dates. Backlogs in court are growing; more than 8,000 unaccompanied children cases have been pending for more than three years. The Department of Justice has funding to hire 129 additional immigration judges and has not done so. Migrant children with significant mental health problems have been placed in inappropriate facilities. Children remain in placements longer than they should because of administrative delays, according to the report.
The report recommends that HHS acknowledge its legal responsibility to ensure that children placed with sponsors other than parents remain safe from abuse, and that if HHS does not, Congress should pass legislation clarifying HHS’s role. Among other recommendations, the report also calls for HHS to enlist more pro bono attorneys to represent these children, and urges the Department of Justice to hire all 484 immigration court judges that Congress has authorized.
Both the Obama and Trump Administrations have seen their responsibility for unaccompanied children as ending after placement in the community. In this view, child welfare and criminal justice agencies in states and localities are expected to identify abuse or trafficking, just as they would for any other children. At a time when child welfare systems are overwhelmed with families afflicted with substance use crises, all levels of the systems responsible for children need more resources. So far, those resources are not forthcoming. The report calls for no more funding – even calling on HHS to find more lawyers willing to donate their time.
While the problems surrounding keeping immigrant children safe from abuse and trauma are not unique to the Trump Administration, they were certainly exacerbated by the recent decisions this administration made to separate children from their parents at the border. According to the subcommittee’s report, as of August 9 of this year, HHS was housing 11,423 unaccompanied children. Children staying in the care of HHS remain there on average 41 days, until they are placed with parents or other sponsors. Adding approximately 2,500 children who had been separated from their parents to the rest of the unaccompanied migrant children would have put significant pressure on the facilities HHS contracts with to provide adequate care. Further, the new agreement between HHS and DHS to fingerprint every adult in the household and to share information has prevented some undocumented relatives from coming forward to take in the children, at the same time that the “zero tolerance” policy has incarcerated more parents, so their children cannot speedily be returned to them.
Some subcommittee members were “sickened” by what is happening to children in federal custody. And while Commander White asserted in this hearing “when they’re in our care they’re safe,” at an earlier hearing, he agreed that taking children from parents was harmful. He said then, “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.”
You can click here to watch a recording of the hearing and read the written testimony of the witnesses and members of Congress.
Each year, tens of thousands of children enter the United States, unaccompanied by their parents or relatives. If taken into U.S. custody, those children are designated “unaccompanied alien children” or “UACs.”1 Congress has tasked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with finding appropriate homes in which to place UACs temporarily, pending the resolution of immigration proceedings. The agency within HHS that performs that function is the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Through procedures described in this report, HHS attempts to place each UAC with a suitable adult sponsor—someone who can care for them and ensure their appearance at their immigration hearings.
In carrying out this responsibility, federal law requires HHS to ensure that UACs are protected from human trafficking and other forms of abuse. Over a period of four months in 2014, however, HHS allegedly placed a number of UACs in the hands of a ring of human traffickers who forced them to work on egg farms in and around Marion, Ohio, leading to a federal criminal indictment. According to the indictment, the minor victims were forced to work six or seven days a week, twelve hours per day.2 The traffickers repeatedly threatened the victims and their families with physical harm, and even death, if they did not work or surrender their entire paychecks.3 The indictment alleges that the defendants “used a combination of threats, humiliation, deprivation, financial coercion, debt manipulation, and monitoring to create a climate of fear and helplessness that would compel [the victims’] compliance.”4
Those tragic events prompted the Subcommittee to launch an investigation of HHS’s process for screening potential UAC sponsors and other measures to protect UACs from trafficking. The Subcommittee’s initial review of the Marion case files revealed information that suggests these terrible crimes were likely preventable. Specifically, the files reveal that, from June through September 2014, HHS placed a number with alleged distant relatives or family friends—including one of the defendants in the criminal case—without taking sufficient steps to ensure that the placements would be safe. HHS failed to run background checks on the adults in the sponsors’ households as well as secondary caregivers, failed to visit any of the sponsors’ homes; and failed to realize that a group of sponsors was accumulating multiple unrelated children. In August 2014, HHS permitted a sponsor to block a child-welfare case worker from visiting with one of the victims, even after the case worker discovered the child was not living at the address on file with HHS.
The Subcommittee sought to determine whether the Marion placements were caused by a tragic series of missteps or more systemic deficiencies in HHS’s UAC placement process. Based on that investigation, the Subcommittee concludes that HHS’s policies and procedures are inadequate to protect the children in the agency’s care. The Subcommittee’s investigation has focused on what HHS calls Category 3 sponsors—those who have no close relation to the child, and therefore resemble foster-care providers or similar temporary custodial arrangements.
Serious deficiencies found by the Subcommittee include:
- HHS’s process for verifying the alleged relationship between a UAC and an individual other than a parent, guardian, or close family member is unreliable and vulnerable to abuse. In general, HHS accepts the alleged relationship between a Category 3 sponsor and a UAC (e.g., “neighbor from home country”) if a person claiming to be the child’s family member corroborates it. In a number of cases, however, parents who consented to the placement of their children with certain sponsors were also complicit in the child’s smuggling. In the Marion cases, for example, several victims’ family members attested to the asserted relationship, but there was a reason: The human traffickers held the deeds to some of the families’ homes as collateral for the child’s journey to the United States. The sooner the child was released from HHS custody, the sooner they could begin working to repay the debt. Other cases revealed that parents have deceived HHS by claiming that a relationship existed between the sponsor and the UAC when it did not.
- HHS is unable to detect when a sponsor or group of related sponsors is seeking custody of multiple unrelated children. The agency could not detect that sponsors in the Marion cases were collecting multiple, unrelated children—a warning sign of a potential trafficking ring that warrants, at a minimum, additional scrutiny.
- HHS has failed to conduct adequate background checks. Throughout the time period examined by the Subcommittee, HHS did not conduct background checks on all relevant adults. HHS’s longstanding policy was to conduct background checks only on the sponsor, and not on any other adult listed as living in the sponsor’s home or on the person designated as the “backup” sponsor. And if that check turned up a criminal history, HHS policy was that no criminal conviction could disqualify a sponsor, no matter how serious. Effective January 25, 2016, HHS has strengthened its background check policies.
- HHS does not adequately conduct home studies. Home studies are universally performed in foster care placements, but the HHS agency commonly places children with sponsors without ever meeting that sponsor in person or setting eyes on the home in which the child will be placed. The agency performed home studies in less than 4.3% of cases from 2013 through 2015. No home studies were conducted in the Marion cases.
- After a child’s release to a sponsor, HHS allows sponsors to refuse post-release services offered to the child—and even to bar contact between the child and an HHS care provider attempting to provide those services. That policy caused HHS to miss a potential opportunity to uncover the crime perpetrated in the Marion cases when one of the victim’s sponsors refused to permit access to the child.
- Many UACs fail to appear at immigration proceedings. Ensuring the UAC’s appearance at immigration proceedings is a principal task of a UAC’s sponsor, and failure to appear at an immigration hearing can have significant adverse consequences for an alien child. Based on Department of Justice data, 40% of completed UAC immigration cases over an 18-month period resulted in an in absentia removal order based on the UAC’s failure to appear.
These deficiencies in HHS’s policies expose UACs to an unacceptable risk of trafficking and other forms of abuse at the hands of their government-approved sponsors. Beyond the Marion case files, the Subcommittee has identified and reviewed 13 other cases involving post-placement trafficking of UACs and 15 additional cases with serious trafficking indicators. The Subcommittee is unable to say, however, with any certainty how many more UACs placed by HHS have been victims of trafficking or other abuses, in part because HHS maintains no
regularized means of tracking such cases.
The Subcommittee has also learned that no federal agency accepts responsibility for UACs placed with sponsors other than their parents from the time of placement until the immigration hearing. HHS told the Subcommittee that its longstanding view has been that once a child is transferred to the care of a sponsor, HHS has no further power or responsibility.
Richard M. HudsonActing Chief, Law Enforcement Operations DirectorateU.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Robert GuadianActing Deputy Assistant Director for Field Operations WestU.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Commander Jonathan D. WhiteU.S. Public Health Service Commissioned CorpsFederal Health Coordinating Official for the 2018 UAC Reunification Effort, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
James R. McHenryDirector, Executive Office for Immigration ReviewU.S. Department of Justice