Destiny of many child refugees unknown as feds don't track them - report

© Jorge Cabrera
The US government agency charged with handling the influx of child refugees that have arrived along the US-Mexico border in recent years does not have a system for tracking the kids, nor does it maintain complete case files, according to a federal report.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency with the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is tasked with placing unaccompanied child migrants with sponsors while their hearings in immigration courts are pending. More than 125,000 such children have been captured at the border since 2011. This flood of refugees has put tremendous strain on ORR, a new report by the US Government Accountability Office has found, echoing previous media reports and congressional investigations regarding substandard government handling of child placement and claims of abuse.

ORR has often left child refugee case files incomplete, complicating efforts to ensure children are receiving proper care or medical services, GAO reported. Furthermore, contractors and non-profits allowed to run shelters and locate sponsor for child refugees have not received adequate oversight. GAO investigators found that ORR staff visited only 12 of 133 shelter sites in 2014, and only 22 of 140 sites as of August 2015.

Once children are left with sponsors, ORR has no way of tracking them, the GAO reported, a situation that has resulted in migrant children becoming victims of human trafficking.

“Based on the findings in this report, it’s no wonder that we are hearing of children being mistreated or simply falling off the grid once they are turned over to sponsors,” said US Senator Chuck Grassley, according to the Investigative Reporting Program. “The Obama administration isn’t adequately monitoring the grantees or sponsors whom we are entrusting to provide basic care for unaccompanied children.”

Grassley and other Republican senators first requested the GAO report in 2014. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley will hold a hearing on care and monitoring of refugee children on February 23.

“We agree with the GAO’s recommendations, which is why we’ve already implemented some of them and are in the process of implementing the rest,” said Andrea Helling, an HHS spokeswoman, according to the Investigative Reporting Program. “This is part of the process of improving the program to care for the children who come into our custody.”

The GAO findings corroborate media reports and a congressional investigation that have found HHS weakened rules for child placement, leading to cases of severe abuse, starvation, involuntary servitude, and sexual assault.

According to an Associated Press investigation in January, ORR's shift in the placement process began when the US government halted fingerprint requirements for most adults claiming children detained at the border. Then, in April 2014, HHS ceased requiring original copies of birth certificates in the process of verifying sponsor identities. A month later, HHS dropped use of forms that demanded sponsors' "personal and identifying information" prior to releasing a child. Finally, it stopped FBI criminal checks of sponsors attempting to claim migrant children.

Following the AP report, HHS said it was reviewing its safety protocol as child refugees continue to arrive at the border.

In early 2012, as waves of child migrants ended up at the US-Mexico border from the likes of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, child advocates urged HHS to proceed with caution. Yet fraudulent sponsors were identified in places like Colorado, Iowa, and Minnesota seeking to claim multiple minors of no familial relation.

In July, the Obama administration called on lawmakers to approve an additional $3.7 billion in funds for border control and child health services to adequately address the flood of child migrants arriving in the US from Central America. According to US Customs and Border Patrol, the 52,193 children detained in 2014 is a figure that is nearly double from one in 2013, when 26,000 were caught.

Since the beginning of 2016, the Obama administration has conducted nationwide raids of immigrant communities, particularly immigrants who entered the US after January 1, 2014, and since then have received orders of deportation. The raids have been widely condemned as punitive and inhumane in its targeting of immigrant families.

In January, the US Commission on Civil Rights, an independent body within the federal government charged with assessing civil rights issues, called for an immediate halt of the deportation raids. The Commission found that families in detention have not been afforded proper access to legal counsel, which "brings into question the enforceability of the orders of deportation upon which the present [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids are based," a letter addressed to administration officials stated.