In September, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) asked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for information on unaccompanied alien children (UACs) — alien minors who entered illegally and who have been released to sponsors in this country. Biggs tweeted out the response this week. The big takeaways: The Biden administration has lost track of nearly 20,000 kids, and the more than 146,000 children in total it has released would be the 18th largest school district in the United States — at an added cost to local taxpayers of $4.6 billion annually.
HHS Role in the Placement of Unaccompanied Alien Children. By way of background, prior to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had jurisdiction over the detention and release of unaccompanied alien children.
Immigrants’ rights advocates long complained about INS’s detention of children, and so when DHS was created in the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (HSA), that bill was amended by House Democrats to give the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within HHS jurisdiction over the unaccompanied children that DHS apprehended.
That role was expanded in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). As I have explained in the past, the TVPRA divided UACs based on nationality, with Mexican and Canadian children treated differently than all other alien children.
Under the TVPRA, DHS can quickly return Mexican and Canadian children if they have no fear of return and have not been trafficked.
All other children, however, are to be sent to HHS (within 72 hours, when possible) for placement in shelters HHS runs or contracts for. Those children, in almost all cases, are to be placed with sponsors in the United States and are put into removal proceedings (which can drag out for years).
The Washington Post editorial board argued in August 2014 that the TVPRA “has encouraged thousands of Central American children to try to reach the United States by granting them access to immigration courts that Mexican kids don’t enjoy”, and President Obama called, unsuccessfully, on Congress in June 2014 to plug this UAC loophole.
Congress has failed to act in the interim, and in April, congressional Republicans in Congress asked President Biden whether he agreed with Obama that this disparate and inequitable treatment of alien children was a problem, and whether he would work with Congress on a solution. It does not appear that the president ever responded.
Biden’s UAC Surge. In any event, the number of UACs apprehended at the Southwest border surged to record levels in FY 2021: Last fiscal year, CBP encountered nearly 147,000 unaccompanied children at the Southwest border, almost 99 percent of whom (almost 145,000) were apprehended by Border Patrol after they entered the United States illegally.
By way of comparison, that is nearly twice the prior record for UAC Border Patrol apprehensions, set during the “border emergency” in FY 2019 (76,020). Note that UAC apprehension numbers only go back to October 2009, because before the TVPRA was passed, illegal entry by unaccompanied children was not really an issue. Thanks to the loophole described above, it is.
The Biden administration has struggled to respond to that UAC surge. In February 2021, HHS had to reopen a “temporary” UAC shelter in Carrizo, Texas, that had been shuttered under the Trump administration. By March, the administration needed 20,000 beds to keep pace with the flow, housing older UACs in temporary HHS facilities while placing younger children in the state-licensed shelters.
All told, the Biden administration opened 15 temporary ORR facilities between February 22 and May 2, and as of the end of August, five remained in use.
State representatives and advocates raised concerns about conditions in those facilities. For example, in April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) called for the federal government to close one facility in his state following what he called “credible” complaints about sexual assault, understaffing, and food and medical issues. He called in the Texas Rangers to figure out what was going on there.
In July, two whistleblowers at a separate Texas facility filed a complaint alleging that employees of the private contractor in charge had no child welfare experience or Spanish-language skills, and no relevant training.
Concerns were also raised that HHS was cutting corners in the vetting process to quickly move UACs from shelters to sponsors in the United States. While UACs had been spending 60 days in ORR care in FY 2018, and 102 days in FY 2020, during the first six months of FY 2021, that had been pared down to an average of 35 days.
The flood of UACs has continued into FY 2022. In the first four months of this fiscal year, CBP has encountered more than 47,000 UACs at the Southwest border, of whom nearly 98.6 percent were apprehended by Border Patrol agents. That puts CBP on track to apprehend upwards of 150,000 kids in FY 2022.
These and other issues prompted Biggs to write to HHS to determine how big the department’s problems had become.
HHS Response. Biggs released HHS’s response in two tweets on March 1:
Additional details from HHS ?? pic.twitter.com/BOssFTG32v
— Rep Andy Biggs (@RepAndyBiggsAZ) March 1, 2022
Costs to Local Communities. HHS revealed in its response that between January 20, 2021, and February 7, 2022, it had placed 146,248 unaccompanied children with sponsors in the United States.
Most of those children are school-aged and will be enrolled in schools across this country. To put this into context, if those kids were all in the same school district, that district would be the 18th largest in the United States, falling just below the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) school district (147,631 students) in total enrollment.
A better comparison would be to the D.C. public school system, however. It has a total enrollment of 48,205 students, or about a third as many kids as the Biden administration has released into the United States.
It is fair to say that most of the UACs who have been placed with sponsors since Inauguration Day 2021 have had little schooling and have few English skills, and that they will be entering lower-income households.
More than a quarter of the five- to 17-year-olds in D.C. live in poverty, likely a much lower level than the UACs who have been placed with sponsors in the United States, but the best number for comparison. To make up for the economic disadvantages of its students, the D.C. school budget is huge: $1.52 billion per year, or about $31,550 per pupil.
That means that the education of those 146,248 new UAC students will cost somewhere around $4.6 billion-plus per year.
It will not be HHS or even the federal government that will pay most of that money. As Education Week explains:
School budgets and the ways they are financed vary from state to state and school district to school district. Generally, though, states use a combination of income taxes, corporate taxes, sales taxes, and fees to provide about 48 percent of the budget for elementary and secondary schools. Local districts contribute around 44 percent, drawn mostly from local property taxes. And the federal government antes up approximately 8 percent of state education budgets.
Thus, the costs of local schools are a big reason why your state income or sales taxes are high, and your property tax is increasing as your home increases in value (and rates go up). Twenty-six percent of total state tax revenues go to fund kindergarten through grade 12 education.
Another 17 percent goes to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Again, most of these 146,000-plus UACs will be going to low-income homes, and therefore will likely access Medicaid or CHIP programs, too. Illegal immigration by UACs may be a federal issue, but it is a state and local problem, and it is state and local taxpayers who are footing the bill for Biden’s border policies.
Nearly 20,000 Lost Children. HHS also, shockingly, revealed that it has been unable to get in touch with 19,726 sponsors to whom it had released UACs.
When the Trump administration had the same issue (on less than a tenth of scale) in 2018, USA Today trumpeted the headline “The feds lost — yes, lost — 1,475 migrant children”. Applying that standard, the Biden administration has “lost — yes, lost” nearly 20,000 kids.
Here’s what happened: Under HHS’s UAC policies, ORR contractors (“care providers”) are the ones who actually interview the potential UAC sponsors, screen the cases, and recommend UAC releases (HHS makes the final release call).
Twenty-four hours after the UAC is discharged from HHS custody, the care provider closes the file on the UAC, and the “custodial relationship” ends. Despite that fact, as HHS explains:
Care providers must conduct a Safety and Well Being Follow Up Call with an unaccompanied alien child and his or her sponsor 30 days after the release date. The purpose of the follow up call is to determine whether the child is still residing with the sponsor, is enrolled in or attending school, is aware of upcoming court dates, and is safe. The care provider must document the outcome of the follow up call in the child’s case file, including if the care provider is unable to contact the sponsor or child after reasonable efforts have been exhausted.
HHS claims that since January 2021, it has made “108,981 Safety and Well-Being Follow Up Calls for children discharged from ORR care”. In the case of those 19,726 children, the care providers could not reach the sponsors during the follow-up calls — a “lost” rate of greater than 18 percent.
In explaining how it lost almost 20,000 kids, HHS helpfully told Biggs: “There are a number of reasons why a sponsor may not answer a phone call, including not recognizing the phone number or not wishing to speak with government officials.”
So, nearly 20,000 children were released to sponsors in the United States, some, many, or all of whom refused to accept a follow-up call from an HHS contractor because they did “not wish to speak to government officials”. To read those words is to understand why this is a big, big, problem.
Of course, most of those sponsors likely did not “wish” to talk to federal officials because they, themselves, are illegally present in the United States.
Biggs asked HHS how many children had been released to aliens illegally here, and the department got cagey: “ORR does not disqualify a potential sponsor based solely on their immigration status or for law enforcement purposes. Therefore, ORR does not verify a potential sponsor’s immigration status.”
I question the veracity of that statement because HHS’s own website states:
ORR may use the macro-level information related to immigration status or presumed immigration status for statistical reporting. ORR uses individual potential sponsor immigration status information to determine whether a sponsor care plan is necessary in the event the sponsor is required to leave the United States.
Needless to say, “immigration status” is a salient factor in every placement determination because it does little good to place a child with a sponsor in the United States if the sponsor is facing removal.
And “reporting” is what Biggs is asking for. At least on a macro level, ORR keeps immigration status information. It should keep it on an individual case basis, too. Regrettably, however, this is just one of many immigration areas where the Biden administration has some “transparency” issues.
Conclusion. There is a whole lot more bad stuff in the HHS response. Suffice it to say that the Biden administration’s own immigration policies have contributed to the historic surge in illegal entries by unaccompanied alien children and that the administration’s response to that surge has put an untold number of kids at risk. And will cost state and local taxpayers billions of dollars in education and healthcare costs annually.