'Plenty of blame': 2 presidents, multiple agencies put immigrant children at risk

In this Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, photo, provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, mothers and their children stand in line at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

Under both the Trump and Obama administrations, the agencies responsible for the care of unaccompanied migrant children are losing track of them and through negligence have undermined the immigration system, according to a bipartisan Senate investigation.

A Senate homeland security subcommittee released the conclusions of an 18-month investigation on Wednesday, that found federal agencies do far too little to protect migrant children once they are no longer in the custody of the government.

The investigation documented thousands of cases where the government lost track of migrant children once they were in the custody of relatives or sponsors and awaiting a court hearing. On multiple occasions, the government failed to properly vet sponsors and released children into the hands of human traffickers.

Issues that came to light under President Barack Obama have continued and in some cases worsened under President Donald Trump, according to the report. It concluded that the aggregate of short-comings across agencies and administrations "undermines both UAC safety and the immigration system."

"We have a serious problem on our hands," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who helped lead the investigation. "This is not a partisan issue, and there is plenty of blame to go around."

At a Thursday hearing, Senators on both sides of the aisle placed much of the blame on top officials at Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DOJ). They also criticized the agencies' response to President Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, which separated thousands of children from their parents attempting to cross the border.

In a joint statement released prior to the hearing, the agencies denounced the report as "misleading" and defended the Trump administration's immigration policy.

"The report demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of law and policy related to the safety and care of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC)," they wrote. "The subcommittee does not focus on the real challenges with preventing children from being smuggled and trafficked in the first place, nor does the Subcommittee capture the extensive work done to protect UACs once they arrive here."

The agency leaders chastised Congress for "failing to enact any meaningful legislation to address pull factors and close loopholes in current law" during the Obama administration and now under Trump.

AGENCIES DENY RESPONSIBILITY

One of the key findings in the Senate investigation was that no one in the federal government was following up with UACs and their sponsors after they were released from government custody.

As a result, these children were found to be at high risk of abuse or trafficking. Many others simply disappeared. The majority of UACs (53 percent) fail to appear for their immigration court hearing, resulting in a growing number of removal orders for undocumented children.

During the Thursday hearing, officials from DHS, HHS and DOJ argued that under current law, are not responsible for unaccompanied migrant children once they leave their custody.

DHS is responsible for up to 72 hours between the time a child is detained at the border and released to HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). DOJ's responsibility is limited to setting an immigration court date.

ORR's is responsible for housing and caring for unaccompanied minors until they can be placed with a U.S.-based guardian or sponsor claims the child. After that, the agency is only required to follow up with a telephone call after 30 days.

"We can't get anybody to acknowledge that they have responsibility for where these children are and what they're doing 30 days after they leave a federal facility," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a heated exchange with agency leaders. "No one seems to be worried about the fact that you all get to wash your hands of these children."

Jonathan White, HHS coordinator of the 2018 family reunification effort, said his department lacks both the authority and the funds to follow up with every child.

"HHS does not presently have the authority to exercise supervision or oversight of children who are not in the physical care and custody of ORR. It certainly does not have the appropriations," White said. Requiring HHS to fill that role would be akin to creating "a national child welfare system in fifty states," he added.

Lawmakers stopped far short of such a requirement but called on HHS to coordinate with state governments' welfare services. HHS has a plan to notify states when they place an unaccompanied migrant child with a sponsor and is not implementing it, according to the report.

'LOST CHILDREN'

Over a three-month period in 2017, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was unable to account for 1,475 UACs after they were released to sponsors. HHS reported these numbers earlier this year, leading to allegations that the agency was losing children.

The Trump administration has previously explained that many children were untraceable because their families or sponsors, some of whom are not documented U.S. citizens, refused to take the call from government authorities.

White told lawmakers that "there are no lost children" and was quickly rebuked by Portman who said his blanket statement was "simply inaccurate."

By its own account, HHS acknowledged dozens of UACs ran away from their sponsors or were no longer living with them. The agency had no way of determining whether those individuals were safe.

White said HHS would release new data in the coming two weeks accounting for the status of UACs after they leave ORR custody.

Many other children are "lost" within the immigration court system, essentially disappearing after they are released to family members or sponsors. This has resulted in a growing pressure on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to carry out removal orders against undocumented children.

According to the Department of Justice, each month approximately 580 unaccompanied children fail to attend their immigration proceedings. When they fail to show up, the court issues a removal order.

Since 2012, more than 200,000 children have crossed the U.S. border without a parent or guardian and without legal status. Before they are released into the custody of a guardian in the United States, they are given a notice to appear before an immigration judge.

Because of the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts, up to 70 percent of UAC cases have been pending for more than a year. On average, UACs wait 161 days for their first hearing and the majority never show up.

There is a general consensus at the White House and on Capitol Hill that the immigration court system is broken and in need of reform. The latest Senate report acknowledges those issues, but it is unclear whether it will lead to legislation.

Committee members said their report and the Thursday hearing would inform work on an immigration reform bill, particularly regarding the treatment of unaccompanied minors. Senators did not offer a timeline for releasing new legislation. Previous attempts to pass even limited immigration reforms have stalled in the House and Senate.

Though critical of agency failures, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledged some progress in recent years. In response to a 2015 Senate investigation, ORR began implementing more robust background checks on individuals claiming to be relatives of UACs.

The Senate's earlier investigation revealed that HHS ORR had released eight unaccompanied children into the custody of human traffickers.

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