Senators Accuse Trump Administration of Losing Migrant Children

(Bloomberg) -- Senators of both parties on Thursday accused the Trump administration of losing track of some migrant children taken into the government’s custody, rejecting U.S. officials’ denials.

“Your blanket statement that there are no lost children is simply inaccurate,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, told a Department of Health and Human Services official at a hearing Thursday on the government’s efforts to protect migrant children from abuse and trafficking. “There are simply lost children, clearly.”

Portman and other members of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations expressed frustration that HHS does not believe it has authority to ensure the well-being of children once they’ve been released to sponsors from shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Portman said the children are in a “legal no-man’s land.”

The plight of migrant children in U.S. custody emerged as a major concern to the public and lawmakers after the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy toward border crossings in the spring. The policy led to the separation and detention of about 2,500 children from caregivers after they were apprehended crossing into the U.S. from Mexico.

Thursday’s hearing, and a report Portman’s subcommittee released on Wednesday, examined a related issue: the fate of children released from federal custody to relatives or other guardians living in the U.S. The government has conceded it’s been unable to contact some people with custody of the children, but also maintains it has no responsibility or authority to monitor them once they leave federal detention.

Portman and the top Democrat on the subcommittee, Delaware Senator Tom Carper, said they’re working on legislation to more formally assign the executive branch the authority to monitor children once they’ve been released.

“We’re going to write legislation” and it’s going to have “bipartisan support,” Carper said.

U.S. Public Health Service Commander Jonathan White, who is overseeing HHS’s family reunification efforts, urged the lawmakers not to require ORR -- which supervises the federal detention system for migrant children -- to monitor kids and their families after they’re released.

“Please don’t make us a law enforcement agency,” White said.

In April, HHS said it had been “unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts” of 1,475 children released to sponsors, about one-fifth of the 7,635 it attempted to contact during the final three months of 2017.

White told the subcommittee “there are no lost children.” Some people who take custody of children from HHS choose not to take the government’s phone calls, likely because “many immigrant families don’t want anything more to do with us and the systems they have been through,” he said.

Pressed on whether sponsors should be required to answer the government’s phone calls, White said he “absolutely” supports families taking the calls but stressed that “post-release services are all voluntary.”

Portman noted that HHS had also disclosed that it had identified 28 children who had run away form its custody. “Of course you’ve lost children -- that’s the whole point here," he told White.

The lawmakers’ questioning of White grew heated at times.

“I’m frustrated, and I think you hear the frustration here because what we hear is ‘see no evil, we’re not going to pay any attention to what happens with these kids afterwards and if they don’t show up, well, that’s just the way it is,’" North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp said.

She also contested White’s claim that ORR "provides excellent care" for children in its custody, noting a flood of reports and law enforcement actions regarding abuse in facilities that are contracted by the agency. “It sickens me,” she said.

The subcommittee on Wednesday released a report detailing the federal government’s failure to check in on children or to ensure that they appear in immigration court. Problems already existed during Barack Obama’s administration, but “the Trump administration took steps that exacerbated” the issues as it separated children from their parents after they crossed the border illegally, the report said.

HHS, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department issued a joint statement late Wednesday calling the committee report “misleading.”

The agencies said that the report includes “fundamental misunderstandings of law and policy related to the safety and care” of what the government refers to as unaccompanied alien children, or UACs, and does “not focus on the real challenges with preventing children from being smuggled and trafficked in the first place, nor does the subcommittee capture the extensive work done to protect UACs once they arrive here.”

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