Illegal-immigrant children are slipping through the federal safety net designed to protect them from abuse, Senate investigators said in a new report released Wednesday that found no federal agency willing to step up and accept responsibility for them once they’re released into the community.
Some children have run away from their homes and can’t be found. In other cases the parents or adult relatives who took the children in refuse to say what happened to them.
In one case out of Florida, a child was placed with a half-uncle — who then sent the boy to work in the fields as forced labor, the Senate investigators reported. The boy was only rescued after his cousin, also forced to work in the fields, was injured and brought to the hospital, where Child Protective Services was notified and took all the children away.
The children have proved a thorny problem since they first surged into the U.S. in 2014, overwhelming the Obama administration, which processed and released them often without doing fingerprint or background checks on who was coming to collect the children.
In one shocking story, human traffickers posed as friends, claiming custody of Guatemalan boys, then putting them to work for 12 hours a day on an egg farm.
While checks have improved on the front end, weeding out some problematic sponsors, the government still struggles once it releases the juveniles, the investigators found.
The Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments say neither of them have the ability to intervene once the children are out of their custody and placed with sponsors.
And while the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS agency that decides when and how to release the children to sponsors, does try to do a check-in with sponsors 30 days after placement, those numbers are also frightening.
Between October and December last year the government called 7,365 sponsors. In 28 cases, the juvenile illegal immigrants had run away, and in another 1,475 cases the government couldn’t determine where the children were.
“This is an incredibly difficult issue and it’s not a partisan one,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has been probing for years the handling of illegal-immigrant juveniles.
“The problems that exist today began during the previous administration and have continued under this one. These federal agencies must do more to care for unaccompanied minors and ensure they aren’t trafficked or abused,” he said.
Wednesday’s report will be followed by a hearing Thursday with top officials from Homeland Security, HHS and the Justice Department, each of which has a role in the handling of the children.
The three departments issued a joint statement Wednesday calling the subcommittee report “misleading,” and said investigators ignored the “real challenges” of thousands of children streaming to the border, exploiting lax U.S. laws. They also said Congress should turn the scrutiny on itself, blaming decades of inaction by lawmakers for allowing the problem to build.
“To make matters worse, the report does not address key national security and criminal issues, such as UAC involvement in gang activity, the benefits to transnational criminal organizations to smuggle or traffic individuals to the U.S., and the drain on our immigration enforcement system,” the departments said.
The juveniles, known as Unaccompanied Alien Children or UAC in government-speak, are not to be confused with the children separated from their parents by the Trump administration during the chaos of the zero-tolerance border policy this spring.
Those children were also deemed UAC — but since they first came with their parents, most are being reunited with them.
But the vast majority of UAC in government custody arrived at the border without parents. Under existing law and court rulings, they are required to be quickly transferred from Homeland Security to HHS, which holds them in dorms until sponsors can be found. Often those sponsors are parents, usually living here illegally themselves, but they can also be relatives or even foster families.
They are illegal immigrants and most of them, when their cases are decided, are ordered deported. But few show up for their cases or their deportations, leaving them in the shadows with the estimated 11 million other illegal immigrants.
The Trump administration said once the sponsors have custody, the government’s role is severely restricted.
Senate investigators disagree, saying the law gives HHS the responsibility to make sure the children are cared for and that they show up for their deportation cases.
As of June 30, more than 80,000 UAC were awaiting decisions in the cases. The backlog is growing by about 20,000 per year, as the stream of children overwhelms the immigration judges assigned to hear the complex cases.
Fewer than 10,000 cases were been completed in the first nine months of the fiscal year, and in 53 percent of those, the UAC didn’t even bother to show up for court, meaning they were ordered deported in absentia.
The median time that UAC cases have been pending right now is 480 days — and some cases are still pending from the original Obama-era surge.
Caring for the children can be challenging.
One of the government’s secure dorms in California, where children with criminal records or other major problems are held, tried earlier this year to ditch its contract in part because children keep assaulting the staff, the report says.
In the end the government ponied up more money to keep the facility open.
Another secure facility in Virginia was recently cleared of child abuse allegations. Officials there also reported altercations between the juveniles and staff.
They told Senate investigators they rarely use restraints, and then only for short period to calm the juveniles down. But they acknowledged they don’t have the treatment facilities to administer drugs that could help calm children.
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