WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, released a new report revealing that as the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States surged, the Biden administration reduced the protections for that vulnerable population. The report, titled Federal Care of Unaccompanied Children: Minors Remain Vulnerable to Trafficking and Abuse, focuses on the Biden administration’s issuance of Field Guidance #10 and Field Guidance #11, which waived certain background check requirements for those to whom the Biden administration entrusts the care of unaccompanied children, requirements like public records and sex offender registry checks. This combined with a more than 50 percent reduction in digital fingerprinting of prospective sponsors for these children means the Biden administration is not ensuring caretakers for these vulnerable children have no criminal history or history of committing child abuse and neglect.
The report also highlights the failure of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in implementing the bipartisan recommendations Portman made in previous reports released as then-chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI). Since 2015, Portman has conducted extensive oversight of federal government programs designed to protect and care for unaccompanied children. He has issued three prior bipartisan reports in 2020, 2018, and 2016 and held four hearings on January 28, 2016, April 26, 2018, August 16, 2018, and May 13, 2021.
The report also reveals that DHS refuses to provide HHS important information for vetting potential caretakers of these children, leading HHS to warn the Committee of “information sharing gaps” regarding the safe placement of these children.
“I have long focused on ensuring that the federal government do a better job of caring for unaccompanied children,” said Senator Rob Portman. “I am stunned and disappointed that our report found that as the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States surged, the Biden administration reduced the protections for that vulnerable population. The failure to adopt the recommendations I’ve made in past reports, along with the decision by this administration to weaken protections for these children, opens the door for abuse and trafficking. We can and must do better. I call on the administration to implement the recommendations made in this report and acknowledge its responsibility for the care and safety of these children.”
The reports key findings include:
- In 2021, HHS weakened its requirements for background checks on potential sponsors and related adults. In March 2021, ORR issued two directives—Field Guidance #10 and Field Guidance #11—easing background check requirements for potential sponsors and household members.
- HHS policy does not explicitly prohibit the placement of an unaccompanied alien child with a sponsor or other related adult who refuse to submit to a background check. Under ORR policy, if a potential sponsor, adult household member, or other related adult refuses to complete a background check, the case is elevated to a Field Specialist who may deny release of the child. After considering the totality of circumstances, however, the Field Specialist may still release the child to that sponsor.
- HHS places many unaccompanied alien children with sponsors without seeing the living conditions. Between Fiscal Years 2018 and 2022, ORR released 363,124 children to sponsors. Yet, ORR conducted only 24,693 home studies—or 6.8 percent of cases.
- DHS refuses to provide HHS some information necessary for ORR to vet sponsors and safely place children. HHS regularly requests information on potential sponsors from DHS, including the people who arrive with a child, yet DHS in some cases refuses to provide the information, leading HHS to warn of “information sharing gaps” between the agencies in the safe placement of these children.
- HHS cannot track children following placement. ORR has failed to implement a mechanism for tracking children post placement with a sponsor. ORR’s current mechanism for tracking children post placement is making a minimum of three safety and well-being phone calls to the child 30 days after placement and does not require a home visit.
- HHS denies legal responsibility for protecting unaccompanied alien children from abuse and trafficking after placement with a sponsor. In a written response provided to the Committee, ORR claims its legal responsibility ends once a child is released to the care and custody of a sponsor. HHS’s denial of responsibility directly contradicts the plain language of its statutory obligations.
The report makes the following recommendations:
- Congress should pass the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act. This bipartisan legislation would resolve several shortcomings identified in the Subcommittee’s two reports on unaccompanied alien children. The bill requires HHS to better track and care for unaccompanied alien children.
- HHS should revise the corroboration policies described in ORR’s Policy Guide and Category 3 sponsors—such as distant relatives and unrelated adult individuals—who fail to prove a pre-existing relationship with a child, should be explicitly prohibited from assuming custody.
- HHS should improve its procedures for verifying pre-existing relationships and develop formal guidance for case managers during the verification process.
- HHS should amend its directives easing background check requirements—Field Guidance #10 and Field Guidance #11—and ensure potential sponsors and household members are sufficiently vetted prior to releasing a child into sponsor custody.
- If a potential sponsor or member of the household refuses to comply with required background checks, HHS should prohibit additional consideration of the release of a child into the sponsor’s custody. This policy should be reflected in HHS’s Policy Guide.
- DHS and HHS should update their memoranda of agreement to ensure DHS provides ORR with the information necessary to vet sponsors and safely place unaccompanied alien children.
- HHS should ensure UC Path—the UC Portal’s successor—is equipped with an easily navigable interface and user-friendly search function.
- HHS should ensure the UC Path system stores data at both the child and sponsor level, allowing case managers and other HHS personnel to review data in the aggregate and perform essential analysis of its sponsor vetting and child placement processes.