(This post has been updated.)
A bipartisan Senate investigation released Wednesday concluded the Department of Health and Human Service fails to adequately account for the well being of unaccompanied migrant children once they leave government custody.
The lawmakers who conducted the investigation, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), are urging the government to take responsibility for ensuring the safety and health of the minors even after they are turned over to an adult sponsor.
Portman and Carper, the chairman of and ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations, are holding a hearing about the issue Thursday.
“These federal agencies must do more to care for unaccompanied minors and ensure they aren’t trafficked or abused,” Portman said. “This report details some small progress but also a glaring need for these agencies to take more responsibility for ensuring these children are safe and appear at their immigration court proceedings.”
HHS, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department released a lengthy response Wednesday night that called the subcommittee’s report “misleading” and that it “demonstrates a fundamental misunderstandings of law and policy.”
Children crossing the border without an adult are housed in HHS-contracted shelters until they can be placed with a sponsor, typically a family member. HHS has repeatedly said that the agency is no longer responsible for children once they are released from its supervision — although it checks in with the sponsors by phone.
Portman has wanted to change that for years, and has been a leading voice on the issue since 2015 revelations that eight migrant children in Ohio had been released to human traffickers.
But the report says the situation is more urgent because of the Trump administration’s now-ended policy of separating families at the border. While the policy was in place, children separated from their parents were turned over to HHS as their parents awaited trial in a detention center, and they were given the same unaccompanied minor status as those who cross the border alone.
That has contributed to a massive backlog in an overburdened system, the report found.
HHS calls sponsors to check on children 30 days after they are released from custody, a practice that began only after the Senate subcommittee’s initial investigation almost three years ago. HHS learned from these calls that it was unable to determine the whereabouts of 1,475 children who left its care from October to December 2017. Of the 7,635 calls HHS employees made, they discovered that 28 children had run away, five were removed from the United States and 52 were living with another person who was not their official sponsor, the report says.
The report alleges that HHS did nothing to try to locate the children after that.
The ongoing legal debate over President Trump’s family separations threw a spotlight on the broader problem. When a federal judge ruled in June that the government had to reunite separated children with their parents quickly, that work took precedence over all else. The subcommittee staff sought updated data from 2018 about the children’s whereabouts. But the report said HHS told them it “can either work to reunite families or update data — but not both.”
The Trump administration, in its response to the report, pushed back at the contention that its policies have made things worse.
“This report misses an opportunity to address decades of congressional inaction that have contributed to the significant influx of [unaccompanied children] and family units who come here in violation of the law and are effectively able to game our immigration system such that they do not fear the consequence of removal,” the trio of agencies said in their joint statement. “If we want to stem the tide of illegal immigration, we must end the legal pull factors that drive illegal aliens to our borders.”
The report also provides new statistics on the record of unaccompanied minors showing up for their scheduled court hearings. Sponsors sign an agreement upon taking the child from HHS that they will ensure their attendance at hearings, but the report emphasizes that there is no one in the federal government who enforces that.
There are 80,226 pending court cases for these unaccompanied minor children from 2014 through June 30. Out of 9,621 completed cases in that time, more than half of the children did not show up. When a child does not appear for a hearing, the judge can order their removal from the country.
“We have a moral responsibility to ensure that these migrant children fleeing their homes and extreme violence are safely and responsibly guided through the immigration process,” Carper said. “It is my hope that, finally, the administration officials coming before this subcommittee are prepared to discuss concrete steps being taken to better protect children living in our country.”
The senators are also calling for better coordination between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security. In April 2018, the two agencies signed an agreement that HHS would notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement when a child leaves a shelter and moves in with a sponsor.
But with the Trump White House’s hard line on immigration, the report notes concern that would-be sponsors who are undocumented may fear coming forward to claim a child for fear their information could then be used by ICE for enforcement.