During Human Trafficking Prevention Month, CIS Sues HHS for UAC Records

Is the department complicit in what is possibly the largest child-trafficking scandal in modern U.S. history?

By Colin Farnsworth on January 26, 2024

The Center for Immigration Studies has sued the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the records regarding its administration of the Unaccompanied Children (UAC) program. Our research and numerous reports from whistleblowers, media outlets, and congressional committees have revealed the dangerous flaws and repercussions of HHS’s administration and oversight of the UAC program. This agency’s negligence has exposed tens of thousands of minors to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking after their release from government custody. Many aspects of this program have been shrouded in secrecy, leaving state and local officials unaware of potential problems within their jurisdictions, and shielding HHS and its contractors from accountability.

Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process, we are seeking the following records:

  • All “Notifications of Concern” Since 2021. At the office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency within HHS that manages the UAC program, a Notification of Concern is “an instrument used by home study and PRS providers, ORR care providers, and the ORR National Call Center staff to document and notify ORR of certain concerns that arise after a child is released from ORR care and custody.” CIS believes the disclosure of these Notifications of Concern will provide Congress, policymakers, and the public with information needed to understand the themes and trends regarding the severity, frequency, and geographic locations of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) experiencing harms or risk to their lives and safety. It will also help the public understand whether sponsors are being properly vetted and whether the government and its contractors are appropriately mitigating harms and risks that UACs are being exposed to.
  • The Zip Code for Each Released UAC Whom HHS Has Been Unable to Contact. CIS believes the disclosure of these requested records will provide the public, including law enforcement and policymakers, with the information to know whether there are any themes and trends regarding the frequency and geographic locations of the more than 85,000 “missing” UACs. The requested records will also provide an up-to-date number of “missing” UACs since 2021. Furthermore, by providing the zip codes of the last known location of the “missing” UACs, Congress, policymakers, and the public can identify which communities have been most affected, which could result in better resource management, as well as more direct and localized policy changes and oversight.
  • HHS’s Contract Agreements with Corporations Regarding the Care of UACs. CIS believes the disclosure of these requested records will provide Congress, policymakers, and the public with the information to know the level of care that was supposed to be provided to UACs under the contracts, who was responsible for providing that care, and the associated liabilities for failing to provide the set level of care. Furthermore, the release of the records associated with the contracts’ deliverables and progress reports will provide the public insights into whether the contracts were adequately fulfilled and/or managed by the government. Lastly, taxpayers have a significant recognized interest in understanding whether hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are being appropriately administered to programs and contracts associated with the sheltering, oversight, and transportation of UACs in the federal government’s care. Many of these associated contracts are “sole source” contracts, meaning there was no competitive process in awarding them. Many awardees of these contracts continue to receive federal funding and renewed federal contracts involving UACs, which should not continue if it is shown such contractors failed to abide by the standards established in the contracts.

As records are disclosed resulting from these lawsuits, CIS will publish updates regarding their contents, and will release records to the public for further review and investigation.

Background. In 2023, HHS and its subcomponent, ORR, were at the center of many controversies regarding their involvement in the Unaccompanied Children Program, which is supposed to provide adequate care to hundreds of thousands of UACs who illegally entered the United States. Under the Unaccompanied Children Program, HHS is responsible for sheltering, providing care, and ultimately finding and vetting “sponsors” to take custody of the UACs as their immigration status is adjudicated. A “sponsor” can be a close or distant family member of a UAC, or may have no family relation at all. Due to policy changes starting in 2021, it appears HHS and its contractors may have begun improperly prioritizing the speed with which they transferred custody of UACs to sponsors over the thoroughness of the vetting of those sponsors.

Thanks to whistleblowers, media outlets, and congressional hearings, the public is beginning to see the dangerous flaws in HHS’s administration and oversight of the Unaccompanied Children Program. For example, in 2023 the public learned:

  • In the last two years, HHS has lost contact with over 85,000 UACs after they were transferred to sponsors.
  • Two-thirds of all UACs that leave HHS’s care work illegal, full-time jobs, often in factories and in hazardous conditions.
  • Caseworkers within ORR claim that HHS regularly ignored obvious signs of labor exploitation, such as single sponsors sponsoring multiple UACs, “hot spots” in the country where many UAC sponsors are not the children’s parents, UACs with significant debts, and direct reports of trafficking.
  • Caseworkers within ORR claim that HHS is outsourcing the care of UACs to corporations under lucrative multimillion dollar contacts obtained without any experience in child welfare programs, without competition (sole source contracts), and with unknown requirements regarding the vetting of sponsors and their associated liability agreements.
  • Records have been produced showing HHS was aware that private contractors, responsible for the physical transfer of UACs to their respective sponsors, were failing to properly check the identity of the alleged sponsor before releasing the UACs into their custody.
  • Caseworkers within ORR claim that children are being trafficked through a sophisticated network that begins with being recruited in their home countries, smuggled to the U.S. border, and ends when ORR delivers a child to a sponsor — some of whom have been found to be criminals, traffickers, and members of transnational criminal organizations.

CIS is seeking information from whistleblowers about the Unaccompanied Children Program or other programs or policies relating to abuse or malfunction in America’s immigration system. If you have such information, please contact our encrypted whistleblower email system at [email protected] or the whistleblower page at our website. CIS can help widely distribute your information anonymously and professionally, to the public and Congress, to promote real policy changes.