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Who’s responsible for unaccompanied migrant children? Senators press officials for answers

Since 2012, more than 200,000 undocumented kids have entered the U.S. unaccompanied, without an adult. Last night, the Senate Homeland Security Committee released a three-year investigation finding that once the kids are with sponsors, no one in the federal government is keeping track of them. Now Senators are concerned U.S. agencies are failing these children. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    What happens to immigrant children who crossed the Mexico border without parents and to those separated from their families after they are released from government custody? How are they tracked?

    The U.S. Senate has been asking that question. And Lisa Desjardins reports members of both parties were not satisfied today with the answers.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Taking the oath, four top staffers for Trump cabinet agencies responsible for immigration.

  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.:

    I'm frustrated, and I think you hear the frustration here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sharply questioning them all, senators from both parties, concerned the agencies are failing a massive group of immigrant children.

  • Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio:

    Who's responsible when a child comes across the border —

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    At issue is the group of children known as unaccompanied minors.

    Since 2012, more than 200,000 undocumented kids have entered the U.S. without an adult or unaccompanied. That group also includes those recently separated from parents. Initially, they are in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, then the agency places most with sponsors, often but not always, family members.

    Last night, the Senate Homeland Security Committee released a three-year investigation finding that once the kids are with sponsors — no agency, no one in the federal government is keeping track of them.

    Jonathan White oversees child reunification for HHS via what's called the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR. He said it is not their responsibility.

  • Jonathan White:

    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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Senators in both parties balked. Ohio Senator Rob Portman —

  • Rob Portman:

    So, we think that you have that responsibility —

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Missouri's Claire McCaskill.

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    It would be a scandal in all our of states and no one seems to be worried about the fact that you all get to wash your hands of these children.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meantime, HHS is not notifying state governments about these children. White said it has had trouble finding contacts.

  • Jonathan White:

    I think there are very real questions about who are the appropriate —

  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.:

    No, they're not! No, they're not. Every state has a child welfare agency. In Missouri, it's the Missouri Department of Social Services, the Children's Division.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The hearing and report painted a picture of immigration agencies failing to follow up on thousands of undocumented children moving through their custody. Some insist the law only requires the government monitor the kids in their custody, not with sponsors.

    In a joint statement, HHS, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice said the Senate report was misleading and that the report demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings.

    Senators insisted they will return to the issue.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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