On September 1, Axios reported that the federal government has “lost contact” with about one-third of the unaccompanied alien children (UACs) it released between January and May. That is especially troubling given the fact that the number of UACs entering illegally is surging and concerns are being raised that a number of them have been trafficked. It’s not necessarily a new problem, but it suggests that the Biden administration is acting in undue — and reckless — haste in releasing those children to begin with.
Under a 2008 law, unaccompanied minors in DHS custody are segregated into two different groups.
If DHS encounters a UAC from a so-called “contiguous” country (Canada or Mexico), it must screen that child within 48 hours to determine if he or she has an asylum claim or has been trafficked. If the child does not fear harm if returned and has not been trafficked, DHS can send the child back home.
If the child is from any other country, however, DHS must transfer him or her within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), even if the child has not been trafficked and has no fear of return. HHS puts those children in shelters it runs or for which it has contracts, usually for quick placement with a sponsor in the United States.
It is a seriously flawed system for two reasons. First, it gives would-be sponsors (usually the child’s parent or another close family member, who are in most cases here illegally themselves) motivation to pay smugglers to bring those children here to begin with.
Second, as I explained in a May post, HHS isn’t very good at either detaining those children or releasing them to sponsors. I was in the room 19 years ago when the decision was made to give custody of those children to the department (which has no other detention responsibilities, or even that much to do with aliens except to give them money), and debate on the issue was so brief as to be non-existent.
You would assume that after almost two decades, HHS would have gotten better at keeping track of those children, but as the Axios report reveals, you would be wrong. I will note that CDC is a component of HHS, and thus the department has a lot on its plate with the pandemic, but that’s no excuse.
The children are placed in one of a number of shelters within HHS’s network before placement with sponsors. Shelter personnel also place the children with those sponsors, after HHS performs background checks.
After they are placed, 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.”
Axios reports that between January and May, care providers made 14,600 such calls to check in with released UACs. In 4,890 of those cases, workers were unable to get in touch with either the migrants or the sponsors.
The number of calls that are unsuccessful has been on the rise, increasing from 26 percent in January to 37 percent in May. Worse, those calls are not being made as they should. Between the end of January and the end of May, the department released 32,000 UACs, but only 15,000 follow-up calls were placed.
If those “Safety and Well Being Follow Up Calls” were not so important, one could cut HHS and the care providers some slack, because they have been pretty busy of late. Border Patrol agents have apprehended more than 112,000 UACs at this Southwest border this fiscal year, almost 93,000 (82 percent) since Biden took office.
At its peak of detentions on April 29, HHS had more than 22,500 children in its care (it was sheltering almost 15,000 on August 31), and released between just more than 250 and just less than 830 daily throughout the month of August.
The problem is that following up on those migrant children is vitally important, because HHS has released children to some truly unsavory characters in the past.
History may be repeating itself. On August 19, Bloomberg Law reported that federal officers are looking into whether some UACs were released to labor traffickers who then sent them to work in poultry processing and similar facilities across various jurisdictions.
Bloomberg also cited to anonymous sources who explained that HHS has stopped placing children in what were described as “at least two agriculture-dense areas that are under federal investigation for trafficking”.
If all this sounds familiar, that's because it's redolent of a 2014 incident in which UACs were found to have been placed with traffickers, who then forced them to work them up to 12-hours a day, six to seven days a week, on egg farms in and around Marion, Ohio.
That got Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R) and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations he headed on the issue of HHS’s vetting of UAC sponsors, resulting in a scathing (and rather disturbing) report on the department’s failures to ensure that children were properly placed.
Its handling of massive numbers of UACs in DHS custody was a black eye for President Biden in the early days of his administration, and consequently the federal government has sought to move those children out of custody (and away from the media and the public) since then.
Of course, Biden could easily respond to the UAC surge by convincing Congress to undo the 2008 law that draws those children (or more specifically, their parents and smugglers) to enter the United States illegally. Biden’s old boss, President Obama, asked Congress to do just that back in June 2014, but no one in the current president’s coterie of “experts” has even suggested that this would be an option now.
That would spare those children the dangers and trauma of an illegal trip to the United States, and the risk of being trafficked on this side of the border, but that sounds too much like something Donald Trump would try, meaning that it is the exact opposite of what Biden will do.
If Biden won’t stop those children from coming, he is on the hook for ensuring that they are properly placed in this country. Trump was hammered in 2018 when it was revealed that HHS had “lost track” of 1,475 UACs.
Assuming the media has any shred of objectivity or credibility left, it will redouble those efforts now that it has been revealed that Biden has lost more than three times that many.
More importantly, however, such accountability will ensure that the Biden administration is not simply playing a “shell game” of moving unaccompanied children quickly from DHS custody to HHS shelters to sponsors’ homes, without fulling vetting both the sponsors and the other occupants of the household.
I've expressed my concerns about Biden’s sponsor placement regime, including the fast-tracking of UAC releases “to parents in cases where there are no concerns about potential abuse or neglect by waiving fingerprint requirements”, and its failures to investigate other adults in the household. I heard too many cases of sexual assault and physical abuse by family members to be blasé about this.
As in the case of the 2018 reports that HHS had “lost” close to 1,500 children, I assume that most of the nearly 4,900 it cannot find this time around don’t want to be found — and/or their parents don’t.
Between FY 2014 and FY 2020, more than 41,000 UACs were ordered removed in absentia when they failed to appear in immigration court. For many UACs (and their parents), getting into the United States is the end game, not “getting right with the law”. Once they are here, they are happy to disappear.
But that does not mean that all of them are living in happy obscurity. Some of the missing 4,890 unaccompanied children may have been trafficked (as Bloomberg reports may be occurring with others), and some of them may suffering the worst possible abuses. It is up to Congress, the press, and the Biden administration itself to figure out whether those children are in danger, and in particular up to the president to ensure that they are found and, if necessary, rescued.