Federal agencies can’t confirm the whereabouts of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied migrant children

"There is not a further attempt to locate the child." 

Central American immigrants wait to be processed after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on December 8, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas.(CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)
Central American immigrants wait to be processed after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on December 8, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas.(CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied migrant children after they were released to sponsors in the United States, a top HHS official told Congress Thursday. The agency was tasked with monitoring the children, who were once in its custody.

Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary for children and families, told a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee that the agency couldn’t confirm the whereabouts of 1,475 out of 7,635 (19 percent) children 30 days after first being released. The agency first learned of the lack of information when officials called sponsors between October to December 2017, asking about the kids’ safety and well-being, and found that the children were missing. Officials also discovered 6,075 remained with sponsors, as 28 children had run away, five were removed from the United States, and 52 had relocated to live with a non-sponsor.

The news was first reported by The New York Times.

In the event that the federal government cannot locate a missing child, a contract service provider will make a note in the kid’s file, but nothing else is done.

“There is not a further attempt to locate the child,” Wagner told the committee.

Wagner oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied children who migrate to the United States — but not legally.

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“I understand that it has been HHS’s long-standing interpretation of the law that ORR is not legally responsible for children after they are released from ORR care,” said Wagner in his opening statements. “However, considering the importance of the post-release period, we are taking a fresh look at that question as a matter of
both legal interpretation and appropriate policy.”

These children — most of whom are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and have fled violence or poverty — are particularly vulnerable to being exploited by human traffickers en route to or at their final destinations.

Two years ago the subcommittee released a report, detailing how HHS placed more than a dozen immigrant children with human traffickers after officials failed to conduct thorough background checks to sponsors. To prevent this from recurring, HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) signed a memorandum, agreeing to establish procedures together within a year to protect unaccompanied minors who come to the United States. The agencies have not completed the new guidelines, and said they would tell senators Monday, by close of business, when they would complete the agreement.

Children who show up at the border are typically apprehended by Border Patrol agents or turn themselves in to DHS custom officers. Once processed, kids are turned over to ORR, which houses children in shelters until they can be turned over to sponsors — who are usually family members already living in the United States — as they wait for immigration court hearings. The sponsors are supposed to go through background checks.

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There have been some enhancements to this program since 2016, Wagner said in his opening remarks, but senators identified further problems during the hearing. For example, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) highlighted the fact that roughly half of the children who are placed with sponsors don’t show up at immigration court hearings. Even though it’s required in the HHS sponsorship agreement that sponsors commit to getting kids to court proceedings, HHS is not notified if kids fail to show up.

“How could you possibly enforce the commitment that you have with the sponsor if you don’t have that information?” asked Portman. “These young people are here and they’re falling in between the cracks.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) noted the inaction is hypocritical given that this administration boasts its robust immigration enforcement.

“These are children, someone has to take responsibility for these children that are not showing up and we have no idea where they are — especially if this administration thinks they are all gang members. You would think you’d get after that.” She added that the notion that these kids were gang members was “stupid” and untrue.