Our Obligation is to Serve Young Immigrants, Not Misplace Them
In one of the most shocking but little-noticed government admissions in many years, last month at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed that it could not find 1,475 immigrant children it had turned over to adult caregivers across the country. Of the 7,635 unaccompanied minor immigrants the agency tried to reach, 28 had run away, 5 had been deported, 52 had moved in with someone other than their sponsor, and the agency could not locate the other 1,475. At the hearing, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota called the government agencies responsible for caring for unaccompanied minors who come to the United States without their parents or guardians, mostly from the “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, “the worst foster parents in the world.”
In fiscal year 2017, 40,810 unaccompanied immigrant children sought refuge and came under HHS’s care, many of them fleeing horrendous violence and food insecurity, much of which I have witnessed first-hand in our work in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. We are protecting hundreds of children, many of them forced into hiding by the rampant, ISIS-like violence of gangs who randomly track them down to recruit or kill them. And sadly, we know and have buried children who tried to make it to the relative safety of the United States or Mexico, only to be deported back to Honduras and later killed by gangs. Since November’s presidential elections, the civil unrest in Honduras has accelerated. Religious leaders and human rights advocates have been threatened, the children who remain behind face one of the region’s most staggering food shortages: 25 percent of Honduran children under 5 are chronically hungry.
Far too often, these child immigrants are placed with people who are ill-equipped to care for them, and, in some cases, traffic them, spiriting them away for cheap labor. How many of the missing 1,475 children will mark this Mothers’ Day conscripted into forced labor, or the sex trade, by the very “mothers” who accepted them from the government, promising to take care of them?
Bad things can and do happen to unaccompanied young immigrant children when they are turned over to unscrupulous adult predators. In 2016, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations heard testimony about eight Guatemalan children brought into the United States by human traffickers. HSS released the minors to those same traffickers, who put them to work at an egg farm, 12 hours a day, under the threat of violence. HHS did not do background checks on some of the adults living with the minors, and did nothing when a mental health worker tried to meet with one of the children and was turned away at the door.
After those earlier Senate hearings, the two agencies that work with unaccompanied minor immigrants, HSS and the Department of Homeland Security, agreed to craft a plan to coordinate their work with unaccompanied minor immigrants. Their plan was due in February 2017, but months later, the agencies still have not publicly produced so much as a road map, and the missing children remain missing.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) the current ranking member of the Investigations Committee, described a 2008 law that “clearly places all children who arrive at our borders and ports of entry without a parent or guardian under the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services,” and said HHS must “place them in safe homes, offer them mental health care and other services they might need, and ensure that they’re participating in immigration court proceedings.”
But Steven Wagner, an Acting Assistant Secretary at HHS, overseeing the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which he said “is responsible for the care and placement of” unaccompanied immigrant minors, testified the same day that “we are exploring the question of ORR’s responsibilities in relation to children who are released to sponsors…”
That ambivalence has become plain in how invisible the children become after the government turns them over to caregivers. According to Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) half of them have not been able to show up for their immigration court hearings, a responsibility that lies with their sponsors. In almost all of the cases where young people fail to appear for their hearings, judges have ordered them deported, even though they might otherwise have been allowed to stay legally. And of those who do show up, according to a Syracuse University study, half lack a lawyer, even though the success rates of their cases jumps from 15 percent to 73 percent when a lawyer represents them.
The government increasingly keeps children in unnecessarily restrictive settings, placing them in juvenile centers in some instances with gang members and sexual predators. One of the children I met in Honduras, Anna, celebrated her 13th birthday in such a detention setting in the United States. She described conditions that were so violent, that after four months she asked to be returned to Honduras even though she feared for her life there. She now lives in hiding in a small hut on a mountainside because she and her mother had the great misfortune to witness a gang shooting one day at their bus stop. They are now marked for death.
This month the United States government announced a zero-tolerance policy that would refer all people crossing the border illegally straight to the U.S. Justice Department for criminal prosecution, and separate children from parents. While in the past, most undocumented immigrants would face civil deportation proceedings, under the new directive they would be sent to federal prosecutors, and their children will be placed in HHS custody.
“If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said.
As the government soon embarks on this new policy of separating all children from their families at the border, including infants and toddlers, how will the United States ensure it does not turn these children over to smuggling rings, sex predators, labor traffickers or otherwise abusive and neglectful homes? Is the plan to lock up all immigrant children, no matter their age or needs?
And if the plan is to place more children with strangers in the United States, what will the government due to ensure the children are safe? HHS lost track of nearly 20 percent of the 7,635 unaccompanied immigrant children it attempted to contact before the Senate hearings.
Now that the government intends to dramatically grow the number of children separated from their families and placed with private adults in the United States, how can it ensure it does not actively place more young lives in jeopardy?