GAO Examines UAC Processing and Housing Procedures, but Misses the Fiscal Mark

By Dan Cadman on July 21, 2015

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on July 15 called "Unaccompanied Alien Minors: Actions Needed to Ensure Children Receive Required Care in DHS Custody".

I suspect advocacy groups will make a great deal of noise over it because of the "inconsistencies" it reveals in processing by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors and Border Patrol agents.

I do not completely dismiss the findings of the report; on the contrary I am sure that there are a number of things that could be improved upon — most especially in ensuring that case dispositions are well-documented, which is in the best interest of CBP officers and agents, given our litigious times. I saw nothing dire in the report, but did see several things that suggest a kind of subtle shading in the way the report has been presented. I might expect such shading from certain offices of inspector general that have shown themselves amenable to political influences, but seeing them in a GAO report is new and troubling. Much of the shading revolves around what is not said or analyzed or even, perhaps, closely examined.

Let's begin at the beginning with what might be colloquially called a "left-handed compliment". I approve of GAO's use of the word "minor" in lieu of "children" in the title although the auditors spoil it immediately afterward by referring to the needs of "children".

Whenever I see the word "children" in the context of border arrivals, I cringe because it is deliberately used to conjure up toddlers and infants. But, in fact, many of these minors are in their late teens and not the kind of innocents that the word "children" is designed to mentally invoke. However, fair is fair, and it merits acknowledgement that the phrase "unaccompanied alien children" was built into the relevant statute. (Perhaps that tells us something of the mindset of those who drafted it.)

But the phrase masks the reality. Take a look at the pie chart on page 16 of the report: 61 percent of the unaccompanied "children" were aged 16 or 17, and another 23 percent were 14 or 15 years old; collectively this represents 84 percent of the arrivals, who were overwhelmingly male (78 percent). In Mexico and other countries south of the border, the harsh reality is that by the age of 15 or 16, most such individuals are pretty much fully formed and, for purposes other than legal definition, responsible for making their way in the world as adults.

Then there is the question of what constitutes the legal definition of an "unaccompanied alien child" (UAC), and who actually meets it. GAO auditors are aware of the definition, because they cite from the trafficking statute in their first footnote. Unfortunately, it is the statute itself that causes many of the problems inherent in the way minors are processed by the CBP officers, riddled as it is with distinctions of treatment and outcome based not on rationality, but on nationality (minors from "contiguous" countries — Mexico and Canada — can be repatriated because they are generally outside of the law's protections, whereas nationals from "noncontiguous" countries — mostly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — are not so readily removed. What is more, the law specifies certain conditionals in defining a UAC, such as "no parent or legal guardian in the United States or no parent or guardian ... available to provide care or physical custody".

The circumstances of a minor's arrival in the United States may be impossible for an agent or inspector to discern in the chaotic environment of a surge. What is more, if the parent or legal guardian of the minor is illegally in the United States, the minor may have been coached to remain silent until the parent or guardian (usually some other relative) comes forward to claim him or her — and this will almost certainly not happen until after processing and tendering of the minor to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Few parents or relatives who have no papers are likely willing to show up at a Border Patrol station to seek out anyone, but they are certainly aware enough to know that ORR officials perform no law enforcement functions.

The result of all this is that the majority of Mexican minors are returned, whereas almost all noncontiguous minors benefit from the presumption that they are UACs and turned over to ORR officials, who house them via contractor facilities until relatives show up to claim them, at which point the U.S. government finds itself complicit in completing the smuggling scheme hatched between parents and coyotes to subject these minors — including those who are truly of tender age — to the rigors of thousands of miles of travel and quite possibly abuse under the "care" of organizations whose sole motivator is profit.

Regrettably, GAO has done no spadework in sussing out how many noncontiguous "UACs" prove later to have had relatives in the United States and not in fact to meet the statutory definition at all.

Also regrettable is GAO's cursory examination of the ORR contractors that are paid to house UACs. GAO tells us that between 2009 and 2014 over $2 billion in taxpayer funds were spent on such housing facilities, with average annual costs "per bed" rising from $55,700 to $90,700. The figures are astounding. And yet, in Appendix IV of the report, detailing GAO's examination of five of the 34 contractors receiving government funds (including so-called "mega-grantees" that maintain nationwide networks of facilities for UAC and family placements), instead of providing the names of those grantees, they refer to them only as Grantees A through E. Why? Do taxpayers not have the right to know precisely where their monies are being spent?

Worse, GAO tells us that it cannot actually assess how much of each contractor's money went toward salary and benefits or administrative overhead — vs. actual care for the UACs and families — because that data isn't being collected on the Office of Management and Budget forms used by ORR. The forms don't require "grantees" to break down their actual costs by category; instead they get to submit a lump sum end-of-year report that allows them to mask any potential irregularities that otherwise would reveal inordinate costs that were not, in fact, used directly for child care. This is shocking.

For all we know, like the worst charities, these "grantees" may be providing lavish salaries and fringe benefits and accruing exotic overhead costs that end up being charged to the taxpayer. Yet we see no recommendations by GAO suggesting that such outlandish accounting techniques are unacceptable and must be reformed. And, as I recently discovered, it appears that no inspector general's office or other watchdog (including GAO) has, to date, undertaken any fiscal audit of the $2 billion-plus or other monies allocated to ORR, in order to determine whether there has been fraud, waste, or abuse in use of the funds — even though guarding against fraud, waste, and abuse is the reason that inspector general offices exist.