Congress Renews Focus on Unaccompanied Alien Children Program
FAIR Take | June 2023
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing to discuss unaccompanied alien children. The hearing, titled “Ensuring the Safety and Well-Being of Unaccompanied Children,” will take place at 10:00 AM on Wednesday, June 14.
Unaccompanied alien children (UAC) are individuals 17 or younger who are illegally in the country and who have no parent or legal guardian in the U.S. available to provide care and physical custody. (6 USC 279) In fiscal year 2022 alone, nearly 150,000 unaccompanied children were encountered at our southwest border. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recently published new data, stating that 11,478 unaccompanied children were encountered in April and that the number of such children in their custody was 500 per day.
As background, in 2003, Congress transferred responsibilities for unaccompanied children from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to Health and Human Services (HHS). When an unaccompanied child is encountered, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) refers the child to HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which manages the UAC program, and that child is placed in a shelter or facility until they can be placed with a relative or a sponsor.
Over the years, numerous media outlets and independent government reports have highlighted the flaws in the management of the UAC program, increasing concerns that unaccompanied children are not monitored or properly cared for once released from government custody. Congressional leaders even released the results of a bipartisan investigation in 2021 saying “years of mismanagement and lack of oversight by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has led to the abuse and substandard care of unaccompanied migrant children.”
The Senate Judiciary hearing is expected to examine the mismanagement of the UAC program, especially given recent media coverage and the numerous government reports that expose the failings of the program. The hearing may also focus on a newly released internal audit by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which patted itself on the back for the way that it has managed the program. The internal audit, titled “Update on Efforts to Mitigate Child Labor Exploitation and Internal Audit on Placement Process Used to Transfer Custody of Unaccompanied Children to Vetted Sponsors,” discusses the audit’s scope, key findings, and recommendations. ORR released the audit after three months of reviewing a small segment of the unaccompanied children population.
Part of the problem is that ORR exhibits a “dual personality” when it comes to taking responsibility for the children it has placed. In several places in the audit, ORR reiterates that the agency’s “custodial responsibility ends when a child is released from ORR care.” The agency claims it does not have the legal authority to care for or monitor children once they are released to a sponsor. Nor has the agency ever asked for it. However, as noted in the report, “ORR is required by the [Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act] to provide follow-up services to unaccompanied children.” The law indeed requires ORR to conduct home studies in certain cases and states that the agency “may provide follow-up services in cases involving children with mental health or other needs who could benefit from ongoing assistance from a social welfare agency.” So, while it claims it cannot monitor children upon release, the agency touts the post-release services it provides to the children and their sponsors beyond what the law requires, including access to health and mental health care, school enrollment, and legal services.
In addition, the audit only reviewed the vetting process for potential sponsors who have previously sponsored other unaccompanied children. And even then, the audit only reviewed cases where three or more children were sponsored by one individual who was a non-relative sponsor. In total, the agency only reviewed a total of 112 non-relative sponsors who assumed care for 344 unaccompanied minors. Given that there were a total of 263,698 unaccompanied children in the two fiscal years (2021-2022) that the audit covered, this equates to approximately 0.1 percent of the total UAC population managed by ORR over two years.
Moreover, the audit appears to have been mainly a paper audit. In its report, the agency states “all 344 cases were audited for compliance with statutory authorities and adherence to ORR’s sponsor vetting processes.” In other words, the cases were only reviewed on paper to determine if the actions taken by the agency comported with the law – going no further than their supposed congressional mandate allowed them. According to the report, the agency only conducted 4 home studies on the 344 UACs.
Despite having reversed vetting procedures created during the previous administration, the Biden Administration claims that it has strong procedures for vetting sponsors. The audit found that in each case reviewed, the sponsor was determined capable of providing for the child’s physical and mental well-being. The audit also found that the sponsors’ identities and pre-existing relationships to the children were adequately confirmed. Finally, it found that referrals for post-release services were made in all cases in which a mandatory home study occurred.
In the end, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) stated that the audit “demonstrates that ORR complies with its statutory requirements and adheres to its policies and procedures for sponsor vetting.” It outlined a number of steps it plans to take, including ongoing individual case reviews, standardizing safety and well-being calls, and improving data collection.
However, the audit glossed over several important findings. By policy, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is required to make well-being calls for all children placed with sponsors. However, of the 344 children placed in this audit, a child was reached only 66% of the time and a sponsor was reached in 84% of cases. Thus, in over 13% of the cases, calls were attempted but neither the sponsor nor the child was reached.
Another troubling finding from the report was that children experience challenges or caretaker changes once released from government care. Of the 344 UACs covered in this audit, about 10 percent were discovered to be in the hands of a different caretaker. Some children had run away from their sponsors, some had left their sponsors to move in with relatives, and some had left to move in with different sponsors. In one-third of these cases, the children had been referred to child protective services.
In short, the internal audit released by the Biden Administration does not come close to comforting critics. The internal audit not only looks at a very small population sample, but it also only looks at a very small segment of sponsors. What is clear is that ORR has no desire to monitor children once released, and insists it does not have the legal authority, yet the Biden Administration is not urging Congress to fix the situation. Hopefully, the Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee ask tough questions and consider statutory fixes to deter parents from sending their children illegally across the border in the first place so this problem does not get worse.
To watch the Senate hearing, click here.