Feds deflect accountability for immigrant kids after placement with sponsors, fueling bipartisan frustrations: Report

PHOTO: A young migrant girl waits for a freight train to depart on her way to the U.S. border, in Ixtepec, Mexico. The number of unaccompanied minors detained on the U.S. border has more than tripled since 2011. PlayEduardo Verdugo/AP
WATCH News headlines today: Aug. 16, 2018

Despite a backlog of unaccompanied undocumented children who have crossed the southern border without a parent or legal guardian, several federal agencies have failed to address deficiencies that create "significant risk for trafficking and abuse" for immigrant minors who are placed into homes with sponsors, a new bi-partisan Senate investigation concludes.

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The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a 52-page report Wednesday, charging that no federal agency will claim legal responsibility for unaccompanied undocumented children once the Office of Refugee Resettlement places the individual with a sponsor — leaving the children vulnerable to human trafficking and abuse.

The findings come as Sens. Rob Portman and Tom Carper, the chairman and ranking member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), held a hearing Thursday to examine efforts by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Justice to protect unaccompanied undocumented children from human trafficking and other forms of abuse.

"These federal agencies must do more to care for unaccompanied minors and ensure they aren't trafficked or abused," Portman, R-Ohio, stated. "More than two years ago, PSI provided HHS and DHS with a road map for how to improve these programs and protect these children, yet they have largely ignored those recommendations." The panel held two previous hearings on April 26, 2018 and January 28, 2016, when the agencies agreed to craft a Joint Concept of Operations to explain their responsibilities for the care and safety of the undocumented children before and after they are placed with sponsors.

After the agencies delayed submitting a written response to lawmakers, the document was finally submitted on July 31, some 17 months after it was initially due. But investigators complained the document only reflected "a recitation" of the status quo and does not address any recommendations offered by the subcommittee or the Government Accountability Office. Department of Justice immigration courts have more than 700,000 backlogged cases, according to the report.

As of the end of June, a whopping 80,266 pending cases awaited a resolution from just 355 immigration judges authorized to review the mounting legal work — a stunning figure that has exploded from 18,852 at the end of 2014. While current cases have been pending an average of 480 days, President Donald Trump has scoffed at proposals to hire more judges to handle the casework. "I don't want judges," Trump said during a campaign rally in South Carolina on June 25. "I want ICE and border patrol agents. That's what I want."

The report notes that the DOJ currently has the authority to hire 129 additional judges. More than 200,000 unaccompanied undocumented children have entered the country illegally in the past six years, according to the report. While the backlog began ballooning under President Barack Obama, Carper, the top Democrat on the panel, blamed the Trump administration for making it worse.

"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, D-Del., noted. "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," Carper said.

The investigation was initiated in 2015 after the subcommittee learned that Health and Human Services (HHS) had placed eight children with human traffickers who subjected the children to forced labor on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio. The subcommittee found that HHS had failed to establish procedures to protect the children, such as conducting sufficient background checks on sponsors and following up with sponsors and children to ensure their welfare.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a governmental reorganization redirected the responsibility of enforcing immigration law, formerly with Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to HHS, which contends it is not a law enforcement agency. Without a federal agency tasked to ensure unaccompanied alien children appear at their immigration court cases, an increasing number of unaccompanied undocumented children have failed to show up, the report found.

Over a three-month period in 2017, HHS attempted to locate 7,635 children whose cases were still pending. Out of 7,635 attempted phone calls, HHS discovered that 28 of them "had run away" and the agency was "unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475" children. On Thursday, the subcommittee was set to examine the department's efforts to coordinate care of the immigrant children, as well as the federal government's failure to implement reforms to protect the children and ensure they appear at their immigration proceedings.

Testifying are Richard Hudson, acting chief of Law Enforcement and Operations Division at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection; Robert Gaudian, acting deputy assistant director for Field Operations West, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Commander Jonathan White, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Federal Health Coordinating Official for the 2018 unaccompanied undocumented children reunification rffort at HHS; and James McHenry, III, director, Executive Office for Immigration Review, U.S. Department of Justice.