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A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border near Mission, Texas. President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending family separation at the border. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Little progress made to safeguard unaccompanied migrant children, subcommittee says

As the Trump administration took custody of thousands of children it separated from parents under its zero tolerance policy, another set of immigrant youth that for years have been labeled by the government as “unaccompanied alien children” was also being sent to shelters nationwide.

In the past six years, more than 200,000 unaccompanied migrant children have entered the U.S. and been placed into the “UAC” program. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services administer the children’s placement program — detaining kids at the border, housing them in shelters and screening adult “sponsors” to care for them as they await their immigration court proceedings.

Since 2015, however, the agencies have been criticized for their lack in oversight of the children once they are placed with sponsors.

A report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations released Wednesday is the latest to call out the program’s deficiencies and describe how the agencies’ lack of progress in addressing them has put migrant children at risk of trafficking and abuse.

The report comes four months after a Senate hearing revealed Health and Human Services lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied migrant children. After placing the children with sponsors, who are usually parents or family members but in some cases unrelated adults, the agency made no efforts other than a one-time phone call to check on their well-being.

The report also reiterates concerns raised back in 2015, when the subcommittee learned Health and Human Services had not properly vetted sponsors and released eight migrant children to human traffickers. The children were forced to work 12 hours a day on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement the two agencies were provided a road map for addressing these problems more than two years ago, but “largely ignored those recommendations.”

Among the issues highlighted by the report:

  • There isn’t a federal agency to claim responsibility for the children’s well-being after they are relocated with sponsors. This means no agency is tasked with tracking the children or making sure they appear at their immigration court proceedings.
  • Health and Human Services does not notify state governments when a child is placed in their jurisdiction, making it hard to ensure the child attends public schools or has access to welfare and other services.
  • Children are increasingly not appearing for their immigration court proceedings.
  • A shortage of immigration court judges has led of a backlog of cases, with more than 8,000 cases for unaccompanied children pending for more than three years.

For months, Senators have waited on an outline from Homeland Security and Health and Human Services that defines their responsibilities for ensuring the children’s safety. The subcommittee received the outline on July 31st, more than 17 months overdue. But, according to the report, it is “largely a recitation of the status quo, and does little to offer hope that federal agencies are working effectively” to improve the program.

Sen. Portman has said many problems began during the Obama administration. But the report says President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy has burdened the AUC program. More than 2,500 children were separated at the border in May and June, as their parents were referred for prosecution. Children separated from their parents were rendered UACs and transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services.

According to the report, Health and Human services officials said the additional housing and processing efforts to reunite children with their families in recent weeks have “stretched thin its already-limited resources for the UAC program.”

Both agencies and the Department of Justice have called the report “misleading” and have said it “demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of law and policy,” the Washington Post reported.

READ MORE: What happens when a child arrives at the U.S. border?

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