By Corinne Murdock
Last Friday, Congressman Andy Biggs (R-AZ-05) asked Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Director Xavier Becerra to answer for the thousands of migrant children that were lost upon release from custody. These illegal immigrant youths, classified by the federal government as unaccompanied alien children (UAC), were supposed to be tracked after release from federal custody.
In a letter, Biggs asked Becerra to answer for how many UACs have been placed with sponsors; how many sponsors are illegal immigrants, aren’t the child’s parent, legal guardian, or relative, haven’t responded to HHS communications, have failed to attend Legal Orientation Program for Custodians, and/or have had their sponsor agreement terminated for failure to attend the legal orientation and/or ensuring their UAC attended immigration proceedings; if HHS places conditions on the release of UACs to sponsors; how many follow-up calls to sponsor families have been conducted since January 20, and what protocols are in place for unresponsive sponsors; and how HHC vets its sponsors.
Biggs lambasted Becerra’s HHS spokespersons for essentially shrugging off their department’s failure of oversight. An HHS spokesman told reporters that they didn’t have legal oversight once UACs left their custody.
“This cavalier and dismissive response to questions regarding the Department’s inability to ascertain the whereabouts of UACs whom it has placed with sponsors is appalling,” stated Biggs. “Instead of dismissing questions about whether HHS knows the whereabouts of children that it has placed with sponsors, your spokesperson should be able to provide the American people with assurances that HHS is taking its responsibility for placing children with responsible sponsors seriously.”
Biggs cited HHS policy that requires government personnel to check in on any UACs released to a sponsor within 30 days.
“If sponsors are unable or unwilling to answer the phone when HHS calls, then HHS should not be approving them as sponsors in the first place,” asserted Biggs.
Placing UACs with adequate sponsors has long been an issue for the federal government. An Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) policy already urges government workers to place UACs with sponsors as quickly as possible. The historic surge of illegal border crossings only places further strain on that system: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has encountered nearly 100,000 UACs to date.
Total UACs for 2019 reached just over 76,000, and then over 30,500 with the 2020 pandemic.
According to a 2018 testimony from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) previous executive associate director, Matthew Albence, nearly 80 percent of UACs go to sponsors that are illegal immigrants themselves or already have illegal immigrants in their homes.
“From our data that we’ve seen just recently, you’re looking at close to 80 percent of the people that are sponsors or household members within these residents are illegally here in the country,” stated Albence.
In his letter to Becerra, Biggs accused HHS of shoddy work jeopardizing UAC safety to keep their number of open cases low.
“HHS appears more focused on releasing UACs to sponsors as quickly as possible and closing the case file than ensuring that sponsors are complying with their agreements and that the children are safe. The concern that HHS is placing UACs with sponsors who are using the children as forced labor or otherwise abusing the children is not hypothetical,” criticized Biggs.
HHS hasn’t issued any press releases in the last month discussing the state of UACs. The last reports issued concerning sexual harassment or abuse involving UACs was released in 2017.
Becerra’s deadline for responding to Biggs’s letter is Friday, September 24.