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Story highlights: DHS and HHS have a flawed system for processing migrant minors—especially when it comes to keeping track of unaccompanied children placed with sponsors.
By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
In late April 2018, Time published an alarming article indicating that almost 1,500 migrant children who had been placed in foster homes across the U.S. were missing. Specifically, Health and Human Services (HHS) officials testifying before Congress stated 1,475 children could not be found after making follow-up calls to check on their safety. This testimony exposes enormous flaws in the current system for managing large flows of families crossing the southwest border illegally. However, it also misrepresents the nature of how many minors move in and out of the system by their own accord.
180,000 Unaccompanied Minors
Minors have been entering the U.S. illegally for as long as adults have, and they arrive either with their parents or a guardian as a family unit (accompanied) or cross alone with a group under the guidance of a smuggler (unaccompanied). The plight of unaccompanied minors arriving mostly from Central America was placed under the spotlight during the “border surge” of 2013. During this time, the federal government placed more than 180,000 unaccompanied minors with parents or other adult sponsors who are expected to care for the children and help them attend school while they sought legal status in immigration court. DHS and HHS came under fire for the stark conditions in which these minors were kept in detention facilities for extended periods.
HHR’s policy for placing unaccompanied minors after they are processed by immigration officials is as follows: “Unaccompanied alien children apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration officials are transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR promptly places an unaccompanied child in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child, taking into consideration danger to self, danger to the community, and risk of flight.”
Possible Human Trafficking
One of the problems plaguing this program is the limited budget for following up on the status of these minors once they are placed. For reference, approximately 92 percent of minors are placed with a parent already living in the U.S. or another relative. The other eight percent are placed with a family friend. Time explained that an Associated Press investigation found in 2016 that more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved or forced to work for little or no pay. “At the time, many adult sponsors didn’t undergo thorough background checks, government officials rarely visited homes and in some cases had no idea that sponsors had taken in several unrelated children, a possible sign of human trafficking,” said the article.
HHS has known for some time that its program for placing and tracking unaccompanied minors is extremely flawed. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2015 that the interagency process for referring unaccompanied children from DHS to ORR shelters was “inefficient and vulnerable to error.” In 2016, GAO reported that limited information was available on the services provided to children after they leave ORR care. ORR reported that children spent about 34 days on average in the program as of January 2016, and have reiterated the legal basis for the termination of unaccompanied minor custody and HHS liability once custody was handed over to the sponsor.
Complicating matters is the voluntary disappearance of many of these minors. The AP investigation clearly showed that many minors have been abused and likely trafficked as a result of this DHS/HHS process. However, the majority of other migrant minors who cannot currently be found by HHS are likely leaving their sponsors’ custody on their own to avoid deportation and live elsewhere. Between 2011 and 2015, approximately 87 percent of unaccompanied minors apprehended while crossing the southwest border were 13 to 17 years old. A Congressional Research Service report published in January 2017 indicated that of the approximately 70,000 unaccompanied minors who were given Notices to Appear [in immigration court] by DHS between June 2014 and June 2016, about 13,000 were issued removal orders. Almost 90 percent were issued in absentia, meaning those minors never showed up to their hearing.
Separating Children From Parents
Drawing even more criticism, the Trump administration is considering a proposed policy change that would allow the detention of families for longer periods and subjecting unaccompanied minors to increased scrutiny that could make it easier to deport them. According to the Washington Post, these new policies would allow officials to separate parents and children if holding them together would place an “undue burden” on government operations. The separation of migrant parents and their children would occur as a result of the parents being charged and sent into criminal custody, and their children sent to federally funded shelters overseen by HHS.
The proposed regulation modifications would also implement several more restrictive measures, to include replacing the five-day transfer deadline for children with the more ambiguous standard of “as expeditiously as possible”; lifting restrictions on how long migrant children and their parents can be held at the family residential facilities; and the authority to delay snacks and other provisions in an emergency, such as a hurricane. The proposed regulations also make clear that children who are separated from their parents after being taken into custody would be declared “unaccompanied minors,” despite the fact they were indeed accompanied when they arrived in the U.S.
DHS and HHS: Flawed System
Despite the fact that these “border surges” and arrivals of minors in large numbers from Central America keep occurring every year, agencies like DHS and HHS have yet to improve the deeply flawed system for processing these migrants—and especially keeping track of unaccompanied children placed with sponsors. Stringent new policies currently being proposed are unlikely to be much of a deterrent to desperate migrants fleeing gang and drug violence, and will likely be even more detrimental to the best interests and safety of migrant children.
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