Senate Probe Finds Federal Agencies Inadequately Care for Unaccompanied Minors

Migrant children walk outside a temporary shelter for unaccompanied children on June 22, 2018, in Homestead, Fla.

Migrant children walk outside a temporary shelter for unaccompanied children on June 22, 2018, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

August 16, 2018

Senate investigators have faulted the federal government for failing to substantially improve its care of unaccompanied minors, finding that children who enter the United States without a parent or legal guardian continue to face significant risk for trafficking and abuse after they are released from government custody.

According to a report released this week by the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s investigations subcommittee, no agency  claims legal responsibility for unaccompanied minors after they are placed with sponsors in the U.S. — and critically, no agency ensures that these children attend their immigration court proceedings.

A report filed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies in late July — approximately 17 months overdue — has not addressed recommendations to improve the system, investigators said.

“We have a serious problem on our hands,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the subcommittee chairman, in his prepared testimony. “When these children do not appear for their hearings, they lose their chance to argue for immigration relief, and many remain in this country illegally, which undermines our nation’s immigration laws.”

In a joint statement, DHS, HHS and the Department of Justice called the report misleading and said it “misses an opportunity to address decades of congressional inaction” that led to the rise in unaccompanied minors.

“To make matters worse, the report does not address key national security and criminal issues, such as UAC [unaccompanied minor] involvement in gang activity, the benefits to transnational criminal organizations to smuggle or traffic individuals to the US, and the drain on our immigration enforcement system,” they said.

Unaccompanied minors often arrive in the U.S. to reunite with family members or to flee violence or poverty in their home countries. They are typically transferred from border patrol or customs officers to the custody of HHS, which often reunites the minors with a relative or another sponsor. In the last six years, over 200,000 unaccompanied children without legal status have crossed the U.S. border, the report found. They are often isolated, with few resources and may have a hard time adapting to their new community.

The Department of Health and Human Services has faced criticism for losing track of unaccompanied minors. At a hearing in front of the same subcommittee in April, Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the agency’s Administration for Children and Families, said that between October and December 2017, the agency was unable to locate almost 1,500 out of the 7,635 minors that it attempted to reach — about 19 percent.  In response to those findings, the agency “took no further action to determine their whereabouts,” this week’s report said.

FRONTLINE investigated one 2014 case of Guatemalan teens who were smuggled into the U.S. as unaccompanied minors in Trafficked in America. Upon arrival, the boys were turned over to HHS for safe placement with a relative or adult sponsor, but wound up instead in Ohio, forced to work on an egg farm in deplorable conditions.

Investigators also highlighted the backlog of immigration cases involving unaccompanied minors. There are more than 700,000 backlogged cases in immigration courts, the report stated, and more than 80,000 involve unaccompanied minors. Of those, over 10 percent have been pending for more than three years.

When an unaccompanied minor doesn’t appear in court, they will typically receive an in-absentia removal order, losing their opportunity to make their case to remain in the U.S. The number of unaccompanied minors receiving these orders has grown from 41 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2017, investigators said.

While the report said that the problems in the unaccompanied minor system began under the Obama administration, it stated that the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy strained the resources for the unaccompanied minor program as children who were separated from their families were transferred into HHS care.

“Unfortunately, rather than offering solutions to these problems and proposing ways to better track and care for unaccompanied children, the Trump administration has decided in recent months to take steps that are almost certain to make these problems worse,” said the subcommittee’s Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del) in his testimony.

The subcommittee initiated its investigation into federal oversight of unaccompanied minors in 2015, when investigators learned that the government had placed eight children with members of a human trafficking ring. While the report acknowledged that HHS has taken steps to improve its background check system, it said that during the over two years it took HHS and DHS to publish a report addressing the gaps in the unaccompanied minor system, the committee has received more allegations of abuse.

These allegations, investigators said, were “discovered not because HHS followed up with those children, but because a school counselor or emergency room personnel caught the problem.”


Leila Miller

Leila Miller, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



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