WASHINGTON (Circa) -- A bipartisan group of senators wants the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take responsibility for unaccompanied migrant children after the agency acknowledged it lost track of another 1,500 unaccompanied minors in recent months.
Between April 1 and June 30, HHS was unable to determine the whereabouts of 1,488 of the 11,254 children it placed with sponsors, according to a recent report to a Senate investigative subcommittee. After handing over custody of the children to family members of sponsors, HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was later unable to make contact.
Lawmakers have been troubled by the lack of accountability from the government agencies responsible for the protecting unaccompanied alien children, or UACs, and the lack of adequate screening of potential sponsors.
Earlier this year, HHS acknowledged it could not account for 1,475 of 7,635 children when it made follow-up phone calls to sponsors between October and December 2017. This led to widespread criticism of the agency and the Trump administration's immigration policy, including claims the government "lost" thousands of immigrant children.
On Tuesday, Republican and Democratic senators on the Homeland Security Committee introduced an immigration bill to ensure the government does not lose track of immigrant children. The legislation clarifies HHS' authority and responsibility to thoroughly vet sponsors and care for unaccompanied minors after they are no longer in the custody of ORR.
HHS did not have an immediate reaction to the legislation but emphatically denied that it was losing track of minors.
"As communicated to members of Congress multiple times, these children are not 'lost,'" HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley wrote in a statement. "Their sponsors—who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them—simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made."
According to a nearly two-year Senate investigation, losing contact with children and their sponsors was just one of many problems. Minors turned over by HHS were at substantial risk of falling into the hands of human traffickers. State welfare agencies were unaware of UACs living with local families. And more than half (53 percent) of unaccompanied minors never showed up for their immigration court dates.
HHS has repeatedly denied any legal responsibility for unaccompanied minors after they are released to a sponsor. At a hearing in August, Jonathan White, the HHS reunification coordinator, told lawmakers that the agency "does not presently have the authority" or the budget "to exercise supervision or oversight of children who are not in the physical care and custody of ORR."
The new legislation, the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act, would give ORR that authority to track and ensure the well-being of unaccompanied minors until their immigration claims are processed in court.
"This bill will ensure that we keep track of unaccompanied minors in our country, which will both help protect them from trafficking and abuse as well as help ensure they appear for their immigration court proceedings," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the lead sponsor of the bill.
The bill mandates HHS background checks on all potential sponsors and adults in the household. It would allow HHS to retake custody of children if a sponsor abuses them or fails to bring them to immigration court proceedings. HHS would also be required to contact state welfare agencies after placing a child with a sponsor, so the state can follow up with services or other help.
Finally, the bill provides an additional 225 immigration judge teams to deal with the current case backlog of more than 80,000 unaccompanied minors.
Portman sponsored the bill with Republican Sen. James Lankford and Democratic Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
The legislation does not call for more funding for HHS, which has been strained under the effects of the recent family separation crisis. Sen. Portman's press secretary, Kevin Smith, said lawmakers are ready to work with the agency to discuss additional resources.
MORE CHILDREN IN SHELTERS, FEWER WITH FAMILIES
Even with support from Democrats and Republicans, there are some concerns about the effects of the bill in the current climate of stricter immigration enforcement.
Roughly four out of five of the family members or sponsors who step forward to claim an unaccompanied minor are not legal U.S. citizens, according to the executive associate director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Matthew Albence.
"From our data that we've seen just recently, you're looking at close to 80 percent of the people that are sponsors or household members within these residents are illegally here in the country," Albence told senators at a Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday.
In recent years, HHS generally accepted that the majority of sponsors are not documented citizens, explained Mark Greenberg, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who served under the Obama administration and oversaw ORR operations at the Administration for Children and Families.
"In the past administration and in this administration, there is not a requirement that the sponsor be a citizen, because the first priority is to try to place the child with a parent or close relative," he said.
However, since President Donald Trump changed immigration enforcement priorities to include anyone in the country illegally, the number of children being placed with family members has declined and a growing number are being held in HHS shelters. "Part of that is because of more restrictive policies," Greenberg noted.
For example, HHS has always conducted background checks of potential sponsors. Earlier this year, the Trump administration stood up a more rigorous vetting process, requiring ORR to submit sponsors' fingerprints to the Department of Homeland Security, which would run criminal background and immigration status checks.
Around the same time, ORR, ICE and Customs and Border Protection entered an agreement to share information on unaccompanied children and their potential sponsors.
So far, ICE has arrested 41 sponsors or UACs who were identified as a result of that agreement, Albence told senators Tuesday. He added ICE will "continue to pursue" the "large chunk" of undocumented sponsors who are criminal aliens.
That agreement has caused "a huge chilling effect" on sponsor and family members' willingness to step forward, said Jennifer Podkul, the director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense. "I definitely think that has led to more kids lingering in detention."
The ICE enforcement action against sponsors will likely make the chilling effect worse and add to the backlog of unaccompanied minors in shelters, Podkul added.
HHS has reported shelter capacity at close to 90 percent in recent months after the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy resulted in the separation and detention of thousands of immigrant children. The agency announced last week it was tripling capacity at a youth tent shelter near El Paso, Texas from 1,200 beds to 3,800.
After a court-ordered deadline to reunite separated families, there are likely as many as 12,800 children still in shelters, according to a New York Times estimate. That number is up from about 2,400 in May 2017.
The new legislation mandating background checks will not impact immigration enforcement, said Smith. It will ensure HHS never allows its background checks to lapse again for the sake of expediency, as it did during the surge of unaccompanied minors in 2014. At that time, eight children were turned over from HHS to human traffickers and put into forced labor as a result of incomplete vetting.
For those in the country illegally, background checks could become more difficult under the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act, Smith acknowledged. "But we cannot hand over children who arrive here without a parent or legal guardian to adults here in the country without knowing who we’re handing them over to."
Since the surge of Central American migrants in 2014, ORR has been responsible for taking care of or resettling an average of 47,000 children each year.
ORR has defended its handling of a challenging situation. HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan has also voiced opposition to the practice of placing unaccompanied children with family members who are also in the country illegally.
"In many cases, HHS has been put in the position of placing illegal aliens with the individuals who helped arrange for them to enter the country illegally. This makes the immediate crisis worse and creates a perverse incentive for further violation of federal immigration law," he recently stated.
HHS leadership has repeatedly called on Congress to close immigration loopholes that incentivize parents to send their children to the country illegally and often at great risk.