'Lost' Immigrant Children? Didn’t Happen
By Heather Ham-Warren | June 1, 2018
Over the holiday weekend, reports began to circulate that the federal government lost over 1,400 unaccompanied alien children (UACs). To call such reports “fake news” would be an understatement.
Last month, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official Steven Wagner testified before a Senate panel that the location of 1,475 UACs who had crossed the U.S. southern border illegally was not readily available to the agency. When presented improperly, that information is easily framed to implicate the federal agencies involved as being irresponsible and carless. However, the reality is that the United States did not “lose” anyone because these minors where not under the U.S government’s supervision.
Here is the truth. Unfortunately, current legal loopholes serve as a magnet for unaccompanied children to come to the United States illegally. One such loophole is the Flores settlement agreement that has been in place since 1997. Under Flores, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may detain a minor for no longer than 20 days, at which point the minors are transferred to HHS custody. Today, HHS currently houses, clothes, feeds, and educates more than 10,000 UACs a year, at a cost of over $1 billion to American taxpayers. Despite the fact that the UAC program was never intended to serve as a foster care system for illegal aliens, the federal government maintains approximately 100 shelters in 14 different states.
However, these shelters are not meant to be permanent residences for UACs, and, when possible, HHS places the child into the care of a vetted sponsor. Typically, these sponsors are parents or other close relatives of the child and accept them willingly. Once a child leaves an HHS shelter, the agency has no authority to conduct ongoing surveillance of the minor or their sponsor. Nonetheless, HHS does conduct a safety and well-being follow up call with each child and his or her sponsor 30 days after being released.
It is important to note that HHS is not required by law to make these phone calls, but does so to ensure children are aware of the support services available to them. Last year, HHS was able to contact 81% of all UACs placed with sponsors, leaving the status of 1,400 unaccounted for. It is important to reiterate that the remaining UACs are not lost, they have (at their own discretion) refused contact.
The main reason many sponsors ignore calls from HHS is because they are also in the country illegally. Unsurprisingly, in these cases, sponsors do not want to be reached by federal authorities. This is a core problem in our immigration system. The federal government cannot detain minors for extended periods of time or quickly repatriate them; and so, has been put in the position of releasing UACs. Over time, there have even been reports of instances where sponsors have then turned over children to the individuals who helped arrange for them to be smuggled into the country in the first place. Criminal gangs such as MS-13 have become especially adept at utilizing these sponsors to their own advantage.
According to White House officials, the Trump administration is working diligently to close loopholes that while paved with good intentions, only further endanger children. Please stay tuned to FAIR for updates on how this issue progresses.