Feds Struggling with Increase in Unaccompanied Alien Children at Southwest Border
By RJ Hauman | April 27, 2018
Unaccompanied alien minors continue to be one of the federal government’s biggest and most complex immigration challenges, necessitating Congressional action, Trump administration officials said Thursday. Appearing before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, officials with the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) told lawmakers that UAC numbers are once again rising, and that their agencies are struggling to get a grip on matters.
While UAC and family unit apprehensions are not yet at Obama-era crisis levels, numbers are trending upward – presenting serious concerns for border security and public safety. According to DHS deputy undersecretary James McCament, between October 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, a total of 21,720 UACs were apprehended on the southwest border. McCament also noted that, in March 2018, the number of UAC apprehensions and inadmissibility determinations increased by a whopping 41 percent compared to February 2018.
The increasing flow of UACs and family units is also putting stress on the multi-agency system that already struggles to house minors in its care and keep track of them after they are placed with sponsors. Once UACs are apprehended at the border, they are screened, processed, and detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Within 72 hours, they must be referred to HHS and placed into a temporary immigration shelter. From there, HHS attempts to place the UAC with an adult sponsor — who may also be in the country illegally — to care for them temporarily, pending the resolution of their case in immigration court. Federal law requires HHS to ensure that UACs are protected from trafficking and other forms of abuse. However, HHS’s policies and procedures are inadequate to protect the UACs that are in the agency’s care. Additionally, many UACs fail to appear in immigration court and effectively disappear into the country, as HHS cedes all power and responsibility over the UAC once they are transferred to the care of a sponsor.
Illustrating the main problem with the aforementioned system, Steven Wagner, the acting head of HHS’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF), revealed that his agency lost track of nearly 20 percent of UACs placed with sponsors during a three month period last year. From October to December 2017, HHS officials contacted 7,635 UACs and their sponsors, but were unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 of them, Wagner said in his testimony.
With immigration courts facing a backlog of over 650,000 cases, and the federal government unable to track or guarantee the safety of UACs once they arrive, the underlying policies that created the initial UAC surge and current influx must be addressed by Congress. Specifically, a loophole in the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) prevents the government from promptly returning illegal aliens from Central America. Congress must close the TVPRA loophole and make all UACs subject to the same removal process as UACs from contiguous countries, as the Trump administration has requested.