New Bill Would Hold HHS Feet to Fire for Unaccompanied Minors

Whereabouts of nearly 1,500 undocumented children are reportedly unknown

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., says the Department of Health and Human Services has a responsibility to ensure the safety of unaccompanied minors even after they’re placed with a sponsor. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill designed to ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services takes full responsibility for, and keeps better track of, unaccompanied children who come to the border seeking entry to the United States and then are placed with U.S. sponsors.

The legislation follows a new report that revealed that the government could not determine the whereabouts of nearly 1,500 children that HHS had placed with sponsors this year.

The bill, introduced Tuesday by Republican Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Rob Portman of Ohio and Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, would require HHS to notify state governments before placing a child in a state with a sponsor and would increase the number of immigration court judges to help the Justice Department reduce the immigration case backlog.

The bill was introduced the same day that the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a panel of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a report that found that from April 1 to June 30 this year, HHS tried to follow up with 11,254 unaccompanied minors who were placed with sponsors and could not determine the whereabouts of 1,488 of those children. They also concluded that 25 of the 11,254 children had run away from their sponsors.

The new finding is similar to an April report that said that in 2017, the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement attempted to reach out to 7,635 children and their sponsors but was unable to determine the whereabouts of 1,475 children.

HHS, in the wake of that report, decided to enhance vetting procedures on sponsors by sharing information with the Homeland Security Department and allowing officials there to conduct their own background check of a sponsor.

However, in August the subcommittee reviewed HHS’s progress and found that although the department had implemented some reforms, overall “it failed to take action on key recommendations that will better protect these children from abuse, help ensure the children appear at immigration proceedings, and give states more visibility into the [unaccompanied children] population within their borders,” according to a subcommittee report in August.

Since 2015, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has been following the issue of unaccompanied minors and allegations of human trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Under current law, unaccompanied minors who come to the southern border alone must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which then places them with sponsors who are able to take care of them during their immigration court proceedings. HHS is expected to do a 30-day follow-up phone call with the child or sponsor to ensure that the child is safe.

However, over the past few years the committee has found that some unaccompanied minors have fallen victim to being released to human traffickers who posed as a “sponsor.”

HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley responded to the newest report by reiterating that even though the department could not determine the whereabouts of these children, they are not in fact “lost.”

“As communicated to members of Congress multiple times, these children are not ‘lost;’ their sponsors — who are usually parents or family members and in all cases have been vetted for criminality and ability to provide for them — simply did not respond or could not be reached when this voluntary call was made,” she said in a statement Wednesday.

Portman, chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said in a statement that “this bill will ensure that we keep track of unaccompanied minors in our country, which will both help protect them from trafficking and abuse as well as help ensure they appear for their immigration court proceedings.”

The bill would also allow HHS to terminate sponsorship and reassume physical custody of an unaccompanied minor if a non-parental sponsor fails to comply with their sponsorship agreement.

Lankford said HHS “has an obligation to ensure the safety of unaccompanied minors even after they are placed with a sponsor.”

“This bill would clarify that just as a state’s responsibility to a child does not end when he or she is placed in a foster home, HHS’ responsibility for the care and custody of a child does not end once that child is placed with a sponsor,” he said in a statement.

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