WASHINGTON, D.C. – Members of a Senate investigative subcommittee on Thursday excoriated federal immigration officials for failing to safeguard children who come to the United States by themselves and are subsequently placed with sponsors.
“Unfortunately, we have seen examples of children placed with sponsors being trafficked, and right now, the best information that we have is that about 50 percent of these children do not show up for their immigration court proceedings,” said Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Portman said problems include immigration courts backed up with 80,266 unaccompanied minor cases, 8,000 of which have been pending for more than three years, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ inability or unwillingness to follow up on the well-being of minors it places with sponsor families who don’t respond to its phone calls. Portman’s subcommittee prefaced the hearing by releasing a report on problems with the system.
The report said no federal agency tracks the location or well-being of unaccompanied foreign children after they’re placed with sponsors, and many of HHS’ follow-up efforts are unsuccessful. After making 7,635 telephoned attempts to check on children it placed with sponsors from October through December of 2017, HHS found that 28 of the children had “run away,” and it couldn’t “determine with certainty” the whereabouts of 1,475 more, the report said.
Although HHS says local child welfare authorities are responsible for the children’s well-being after their placement, subcommittee investigators said HHS usually doesn’t tell local authorities the children are there. The subcommittee began to probe HHS’ treatment of unaccompanied children who enter the United States after human traffickers forced eight Guatemalan teenagers to work on Marion, Ohio egg farms. Six traffickers have been sent to prison for their role in the scheme.
Officials from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services defended their handling of child immigrants, with HHS Assistant Secretary Jonathan White telling the subcommittee that no children were lost. He said many are placed with family members who are in the United States illegally and won’t take follow-up calls from HHS because “they believe they have cause to fear us.”
Portman disputed White’s statement that no children were lost.
“Of course there are lost children–and that’s the whole point here. No one’s responsible,” said Portman. “You just made the good point that they don’t have to take the call. Why don’t they have to take the call? What does the sponsor agreement mean if they don’t have to take a call at least? And who enforces that sponsor agreement? And your answer to me is going to be nobody.”
Members of the subcommittee said they were drafting legislation to help federal agencies better track unaccompanied children who immigrate to the the United States. They asked whether placing the children with sponsors who are legally in the United States would help solve problems, whether more money and courtrooms are needed for immigration judges, and whether it would be helpful to give HHS more authority and money to track down children.
“Please don’t make us a law enforcement agency,” White responded. ” Law enforcement should be the prerogative of trained law enforcement professionals, care of children should be up to social workers.”
Justice Department immigration review director James R. McHenry agreed with suggestions that more judges are needed, and that video conferencing might help address problems created by the scarcity of judges and difficulties the children might have traveling to hearings in distant cities. The only Ohio judges who handle child immigration cases are in Cleveland, which makes it hard for kids outside Northeast Ohio to get there.
Homeland Security Department representatives suggested that committee members close a loophole that allows them to return children to Canada and Mexico to their home countries if they request it, but doesn’t allow them to return children from non-contiguous countries. Many of the children at issue are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“Just because a juvenile is Mexican or Canadian, they should not be treated differently from Central Americans,” Robert Guadian of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the subcommittee.