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Senators Lankford, Portman, Blumenthal, Carper Introduce Bill to Improve Care & Safety for Unaccompanied Minors, Accelerate Immigration Court Proceedings

WASHINGTON, DC – Based on new oversight findings from Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) showing that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could not determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,488 out of 11,254 children HHS had placed with sponsors based on follow-up calls between April 1 and June 30 of this year, US Senators James Lankford (R-OK), Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Tom Carper (D-DE) today introduced bipartisan legislation – the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act – requiring HHS to take better care of these children. This measure will both ensure the children’s safety and ensure they appear at their immigration court proceedings.

Since 2015, PSI has been conducting oversight of HHS’ program to place unaccompanied minors with sponsors in this country following reports that HHS placed eight unaccompanied minors with human traffickers who put those children into forced labor in Ohio. PSI, led by Chairman Portman and Ranking Member Carper, has documented its findings in two reports, one released on August 15, 2018, and the other on January 28, 2016. PSI learned that no agency takes responsibility for enforcing sponsor agreements to care for these children once HHS places children with sponsors. HHS has started calling the children 30 days after placement. In April, the Subcommittee learned that out of 7,635 calls made from October-December 2017, 28 children had run away from their sponsors, and HHS could not determine with certainty the location of 1,475 of them. And now the Subcommittee has recently learned that FY 2018 Q3 results are similar. From April 1 to June 30, 2018, HHS tried to call 11,254 UACs and their sponsors. Twenty-five had run away from their sponsors, and HHS could not determine the whereabouts of 1,488 of those children.

Based on those oversight findings, Senators Lankford, Portman, Blumenthal, and Carper today introduced the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act. The bill clarifies that HHS is responsible for ensuring these children’s safety. It requires HHS to run background checks before placing children with sponsors, to make sure sponsors live up to their agreement to care for the children and ensure they appear at their immigration court proceedings and to notify state governments before placing children in those states. And it increases immigration court judges so the Department of Justice can process all immigration cases more efficiently. 

“Congress should work to stop illegal border crossings by all individuals, but until that can be accomplished, the Department of Health and Human Services has an obligation to ensure the safety of unaccompanied minors even after they are placed with a sponsor,” said Senator Lankford. “This bill would clarify that just as a state’s responsibility to a child does not end when he or she is placed in a foster home, HHS’ responsibility for the care and custody of a child does not end once that child is placed with a sponsor. I’m glad to join my colleagues Senators Portman, Blumenthal, and Carper to introduce this bill and continue the conversation to protect minors who come to the US without a parent or guardian.” 

“Our goal with this bipartisan legislation is to address some of the problems we’ve found that led to HHS placing eight children with human traffickers and into forced labor in Ohio,” said Senator Portman. “This bill will ensure that we keep track of unaccompanied minors in our country, which will both help protect them from trafficking and abuse as well as help ensure they appear for their immigration court proceedings. These efforts are critical for safeguarding these children and upholding our immigration system. This isn’t a partisan issue. The problems that exist today began during the previous administration and have continued under this one, and we have a responsibility to get it right.”

“This bipartisan legislation will ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services properly fulfills its obligation to protect the safety and well-being of unaccompanied immigrant children by requiring better tracking of children in its custody and better monitoring of their safety both before and after they are placed with sponsors,” said Senator Blumenthal. “Children who risk their lives to make a dangerous journey in pursuit of asylum shouldn’t then have to worry about falling victim to human trafficking or being handed over to abusive or neglectful adults in the United States. I hope my colleagues will join this bipartisan effort to protect vulnerable children and quickly pass this bill.”

“Thanks in large part to the work done by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), we have clearly seen that the already challenging reality migrant children face is being made even more difficult and, too often, more dangerous. This simply doesn’t have to be the case and, as this legislation demonstrates, the solutions don’t have to be partisan,” said Senator Carper. “The Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act is a good, constructive step forward that will help to ensure we do a better job protecting an already vulnerable population and that we don’t place unnecessary hurdles in their way that simply make it harder for these unaccompanied minors to adhere to our immigration processes. We have a moral obligation to ensure that these children are safe and given a fair chance to show up at their court proceedings, and I thank my colleagues for their willingness to work toward productive solutions.” 

Since October 2014, HHS has placed more than 150,000 unaccompanied alien children (UACs) with adult sponsors in the United States while they wait for their immigration court proceedings. In 2016, the PSI released a report detailing HHS’s failure to protect some of these children. In August 2018, PSI released a second report finding that, although HHS has implemented some reforms, it has failed to take action on key recommendations that will better protect these children from abuse, help ensure the children appear at immigration proceedings, and give states more visibility into the UAC population within in their borders.  This bill addresses those problems.  Following is a brief summary of the bill:

1.    Clarification of HHS Responsibilities

Problem:  HHS denies that it has legal responsibility for UACs once they are placed with sponsors.  If sponsors abuse the children or fail to ensure they show up for their immigration court proceedings, HHS denies that it has authority to remove the children from those sponsors’ care and relies entirely on state and local welfare agencies to respond to reports of problems. 

Solution:  This legislation clarifies and affirms that HHS has ongoing authority to care for UACs until the child’s immigration proceedings conclude.  It mandates that HHS must do background checks on all potential sponsors and other adults in the household.

2.    Care of Unaccompanied Alien Children

Problem:  If a sponsor neglects a UAC or fails to ensure the child appears at his immigration proceedings, HHS does not rescind the sponsorship agreement automatically.

Solution:  This legislation requires HHS to terminate sponsorship and reassume physical custody of the UAC if a non-parental sponsor fails to comply with his sponsorship agreement.  It also requires sponsors to accept post-release services when offered by HHS.

3.    State Notification

Problem:  Currently, HHS does not notify states or localities when it places UACs with sponsors in a state. 

Solution:  This legislation requires HHS to notify state welfare agencies before it releases UACs to sponsors within a state.  Notification will help states better prepare for UACs living in their states and help legal service providers gain better access to UACs—which will help ensure their presence at immigration proceedings.

4.    Additional Immigration Judges

Problem:  The immigration courts have a 700,000+ case backlog, 80,000 of which are UAC cases. 

Solution:  This legislation provides 225 additional immigration judge teams to help reduce the backlog.