Children Belong with their Families

WASHINGTON, DC (November 30, 2018)—This week the Office of the Inspector General released a report indicating that the Department of Health and Human Services has failed to ensure that staff working at facilities housing immigrant children undergo the requisite background checks.

Record numbers of immigrant children are currently being held in HHS custody because of delays connecting them to their sponsors in the United States. According to the most recent reports, 14,000 unaccompanied children are living in shelters (intended to be temporary) overseen by HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. A spokesman for the agency has said that the delays stem from efforts to “reduce risk and increase safety.” As of this summer, HHS has required all potential sponsors, as well as members of their households, to submit fingerprints for background checks, which it shares with the Department of Homeland Security to run immigration status checks. So far at least 41 sponsors lacking legal status have been arrested as a result. The discharge rate at ORR shelters has predictably plummeted as fewer sponsors come forward and it takes longer for the process to be completed.

The horrifying irony of this is that, because of the large number of children in HHS custody resulting from its decision to conduct background and legal status checks on all potential sponsors, some are now living in ORR shelters whose staff have not been similarly vetted. Tornillo Tent City, one of two makeshift “influx” shelters, houses 1,800 children ages 13 to 17 and is the subject of the OIG report. According to the report, the organization running Tornillo is not conducting the required FBI background check on its approximately 1,300 staff. Tornillo also does not have an adequate number of mental health clinicians to serve the children, according to the OIG. The OIG concludes that both issues “pose substantial risks to children receiving care at this facility.”

The OIG report exposes how, for this administration, the “safety and security” of children has become a mere pretext for implementing its racist and xenophobic immigration agenda. Reports this week that the administration is continuing to separate children from their parents at the border provide further evidence of this point. According to an in-depth investigation by Pro-Publica, Customs and Border Protection agents are literally ripping children from their parents’ arms if they can divine any excuse that it is in the interests of the health and welfare of the child. One child was separated from his father because a background check turned up a 10 year old warrant for a DUI charge in Florida. Immigration attorney Neha Desai, at the National Center for Youth Law, reports that “if the authorities have even the most specious evidence that a parent was a gang member…anything they can come up with to say that the separation is for the health and welfare of the child, then they’ll separate them.”  

Children need the loving care of their parents and families in order to thrive. This administration must stop separating children from their families and delaying reunification. And it must ensure that children in federal custody are truly safe and secure, upholding its obligations under the Flores Settlement Agreement and according them the same care and concern that we owe all children.