Press Releases

Reps. Roybal-Allard, DeLauro Request Briefing from HHS Sec. Azar and DHS Sec. Nielsen on Prolonged Detention of Unaccompanied Children

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Washington, October 11, 2018 | Ben Soskin ((202) 225-1766) | comments
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, sent a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen requesting that they brief Members of Congress on the prolonged detention of unaccompanied children.  Their letter follows a New York Times report that over 1,600 unaccompanied children in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) were transferred to a tent city facility in Tornillo, Texas.  The facility has reportedly failed to meet the standards of care for children as established in the Flores settlement agreement.

Reps. Roybal-Allard and DeLauro also requested transparency from the Trump administration regarding how much the detention of children is costing taxpayers in spending by ORR, as well as what resources are in place to help children at Tornillo cope with the traumatic stress they are enduring.  Furthermore, this letter questions DHS and HHS about the impact of an information-sharing Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on ORR’s ability to place unaccompanied children with sponsors.  This MOA has led to an increase in the number of unaccompanied children in the care of ORR, as well as in the amount of time unaccompanied children spend in ORR’s care.

“The continued use of the temporary detention facilities such as Tornillo simply cannot be justified. Following the family separation debacle earlier this year, which artificially increased the number of ‘unaccompanied’ children requiring short-term placement with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the flow of unaccompanied children crossing our southern border or presenting themselves at ports of entry has normalized back to levels experienced in recent years,” wrote the Members.  “In contrast, the number of children in ORR custody has increased to the current level of nearly 13,300, as the average time it takes ORR to place a child with a sponsor has increased from 34 days to 75 days, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data.

“A substantial cause of this longer average placement time is the May 2018 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to recent testimony by a senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official, ICE has arrested potential sponsors it suspects are removable, including sponsors with no prior criminal records. There is no doubt that the implementation of this MOA has had a chilling effect on the willingness of sponsors to come forward and will continue to exacerbate ORR’s massive backlog,” continued the Members.  “The care and safety of these children is our highest priority. Directing the Administration for Children and Families away from its mission of ‘fostering health and well-being’ to carry out immigration enforcement is very likely putting children in danger.”

A full copy of the letter can be found below.

The Honorable Alex Azar 
Secretary 
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 
200 Independence Avenue SW 
Washington, DC 20201 
 
The Honorable Kirstjen M. Nielsen 
Secretary 
U.S. Department of Homeland Security 
3801 Nebraska Ave NW
Washington, DC 20528 

Dear Secretary Azar and Secretary Nielsen,

We were alarmed by the September 30, 2018, New York Times report regarding hundreds of unaccompanied child who have been moved across the country in the dead of night to the tent city in Tornillo, Texas. According to that report, these children are not receiving the educational services that meet the Flores settlement agreement standards, given that influx facilities do not need to meet all requirements outlined in Flores. We are concerned about the immediate impact of these circumstances on the well-being of the children, as well as the long-term educational and mental health implications for them of prolonged detention.

The continued use of the temporary detention facilities such as Tornillo simply cannot be justified. Following the family separation debacle earlier this year, which artificially increased the number of “unaccompanied” children requiring short-term placement with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the flow of unaccompanied children crossing our southern border or presenting themselves at ports of entry has normalized back to levels experienced in recent years. In contrast, the number of children in ORR custody has increased to the current level of nearly 13,300, as the average time it takes ORR to place a child with a sponsor has increased from 34 days to 75 days, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data.

A substantial cause of this longer average placement time is the May 2018 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to recent testimony by a senior Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official, ICE has arrested potential sponsors it suspects are removable, including sponsors with no prior criminal records. There is no doubt that the implementation of this MOA has had a chilling effect on the willingness of sponsors to come forward and will continue to exacerbate ORR’s massive backlog.

The care and safety of these children is our highest priority. Directing the Administration for Children and Families away from its mission of “fostering health and well-being” to carry out immigration enforcement is very likely putting children in danger.

We ask that you jointly provide an immediate written response and a subsequent detailed briefing for Members of Congress on how sponsor vetting affects the Administration’s estimates for ICE and the UAC program’s costs for the remainder of this calendar year, as well as, the projected program costs for the remainder of the fiscal year in light of the MOA. As you know, the fiscal year 2019 appropriation for HHS was enacted on September 28, 2018, setting a final funding level for the Unaccompanied Children program.

Specifically, we request the following information: 

1.      Provide the average daily cost to ORR of a temporary shelter bed.
2.      Provide the average daily cost of providing temporary shelter to unaccompanied children.
3.      Provide the average cost of transporting children to Tornillo.
4.      Provide the average cost of the ICE-background check process.
5.      Provide the cost of the new policy requiring all adult household members of potential sponsors to be fingerprinted.
6.      Provide information about the additional resources that are provided at Tornillo to help children cope with the trauma of detention, including: 
      o   How many mental health professionals are available on site?
      o   How are children made aware of mental health professionals during their stay at Tornillo? 
      o   How many hours each day can children visit these professionals?
      o   Of the total population of children at Tornillo, what is the average number of children who have seen mental health professionals before they leave Tornillo?
7.      What type of information, if any, was provided to children prior to their transfer to a new facility?
8.      Provide an explanation for the necessity to transfer these children in the middle of the night.
      o   What alternative modes of transferring children between ORR facilities were available?

We also request that you provide the detailed schedule for the day-to-day operations at Tornillo, including information related to the educational services and health care available to children living at the site.

Thank you for your attention to this critical matter. We urge you to hold this briefing and provide this information as soon as possible.


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