Portman Opening Statement at PSI Hearing on Oversight of HHS & DHS Efforts to Protect Unaccompanied Minors from Human Trafficking & Abuse

WASHINGTON, D.C. – This morning, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), the Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), delivered remarks at a hearing to examine efforts by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to protect unaccompanied minors from human trafficking and other forms of abuse.  This hearing follows up on PSI’s hearing on January 28, 2016 at which the Subcommittee released a report detailing how HHS placed eight children with human traffickers who placed the children in forced labor on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio.  The Subcommittee found that HHS had failed to establish procedures to protect UACs, such as conducting sufficient background checks on sponsors and following up with sponsors and UACs to ensure UACs’ welfare. 

Following is a transcript of Portman’s opening statement and you can watch his opening statement here and below.

“In 2015, I learned the story of eight unaccompanied minors from Guatemala who crossed our southern border.  A ring of human traffickers lured them to the United States, they’d actually gone to Guatemala and told their parents they would provide them education in America.  To pay for the children’s smuggling debt, their parents gave the traffickers the deeds to their homes, which the traffickers then retained until the children could work off the debt because they weren’t interested in giving them an education, as it turn out, they were interested in trafficking them.

“When the children crossed our border, their status, as defined by federal immigration law, was that of “unaccompanied alien child,” or UACs, so you will hear the term UAC used today.  The Department of Homeland Security picked them up and, following protocol, transferred them to the Department of Health and Human Services.  HHS then was supposed to place these children with sponsors who would keep them safe until they could go through the appropriate immigration legal proceedings. That’s practice.

“That didn’t happen. 

“What did happen:  HHS released these children back into the custody of those human traffickers without vetting them.

“Let me repeat that:  HHS actually placed these children back in the hands of the traffickers. 

“The traffickers took them to an egg farm in Marion, Ohio, where the children lived in squalid conditions and were forced to work 12 hours a day, six-seven days a week, for more than a year.  The traffickers threatened the children and their families with physical harm—and even death—if the children didn’t perform these long hours.

“This Subcommittee investigated.  We found that HHS didn’t do background checks on those sponsors.  HHS also didn’t respond to red flags that should have alerted them to problems with the sponsors.  For example, HHS missed that a group of sponsors were collecting multiple UACs, not just one child but multiple children.  And HHS didn’t do anything when a social worker provided help to one of those children, or tried to at least, and the sponsor turned the social worker away.

“During our investigation, we held a hearing in January 2016, so this goes back a couple of years, where HHS committed to do better, understanding that this was a major problem in 2016. Of course that was during the Obama administration so this has gone on through two administrations now. HHS committed to clarifying the Department of Homeland Security and HHS responsibilities for protecting these children.  HHS and DHS entered into a three-page ‘Memorandum of Agreement,’ which said that the agencies recognized they should ensure these unaccompanied alien children aren’t abused or trafficked.

“The agreement said the agencies would enter into a detailed “Joint Concept of Operations” that would spell out what the agencies would do to fix the problems.  HHS and DHS gave themselves a deadline of February 2017 to have this ‘Joint Concept of Operations’ pulled together. That seemed like plenty of time to do it. It wasn’t done and that was over a year ago.

“It’s now April 2018.  We still don’t have that Joint Concept of Operations—the JCO – and despite repeated questions from Sen. Carper and me, as well as our staffs, over the past year, we don’t have any answers about why that is. 

“In fact, in a recent meeting, a DHS official asked our investigators why we even cared about the JCO

“Let me be clear.  We care about the JCO because we care that we have a plan in place to protect these kids while they’re in our government’s custody.  We care because the Government Accountability Office has said that DHS has sent children to the wrong facility because of miscommunications with HHS. 

“We care because the agencies themselves thought it was important enough to set a deadline for this JCO, but then blew by it.  And we care because these kids, regardless of their immigration status, deserve to be treated properly, not abused or trafficked.

“We learned at 4 pm yesterday that 13 days ago – there was an additional memorandum of agreement reached between the two agencies – we requested and finally received a copy of this new agreement at midnight last night.  It’s not the JCO that we’ve been waiting for – but it is a more general statement of how information will be shared between the two agenices.  Frankly, we had assumed that this information was already being shared – maybe it was. It’s positive that we have this additional memorandum, that’s great. It’s nice that this hearing motivated that to happen but it’s not the JCO we’ve all been waiting for.

“We called this hearing today for DHS and HHS to give us some answers about the JCO.

“Once DHS hands unaccompanied minors off to HHS, the law provides that “the care and custody of all unaccompanied alien children . . . shall be the responsibility of the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”  But HHS told this Subcommittee that once it places children with sponsors—even sponsors who are not related to the children— it no longer has legal responsibility for them.  Not if they’re abused.  Not if they miss their court hearings. No responsibility.  That’s of course not acceptable and not workable.

“HHS inherited responsibilities relating to these children when Congress dissolved Immigration and Naturalization Services, INS.  We continue to believe HHS has the authority and responsibility to care and keep track of these children.

“Since our 2016 hearing, we also have heard about other problems.  We’ve heard that sponsors frequently fail to ensure these children show up at their immigration court proceedings.  That undermines our rule of law and an effective immigration system.  And in almost all of those cases, the judge enters an in absentia removal order.  That means that even if the children are eligible for immigration relief, like asylum status, they don’t get it and are ordered removed—so it’s bad for the children, too.

“We also learned that HHS does not track these children once HHS releases them to sponsors.  Nor does HHS notify state or local governments when it places these children with sponsors in those communities.  HHS says they do plan to start notifying local law enforcement when it releases high-risk children, but hasn’t done so because it can’t figure out who to tell.  This seems like a straightforward step—we should at least be able to figure that out here today? 

“Since 2016, HHS has called sponsors and the children 30 days after placement with sponsors to check on the children.  That’s a good step in my view.  But in his testimony, Mr. Wagner says from October to December last year, ORR tried to reach 7,635 of these children.  Of those, he says “ORR was unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC.”  That’s almost 1500 kids missing in just a three month period.  We’d like to know how HHS plans to track down these children.

“And we also heard about problems at the three secure facilities HHS uses to house UACs who are higher risks—those accused of crimes, who might harm themselves, or who present a flight risk.  The head of the Yolo County, California facility says that HHS does not give them enough money for the number of children they house—which means they cannot hire enough staff to take care of the children safely.  We have a witness from the facility in Shenandoah Valley here today who will explain to us why their facility simply isn’t equipped to handle some of the children the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement places there and what can be done about that.

“Again, this is not an issue that just came up in this administration. This dates back to the Obama administration and now into the new Trump administration. The topic of unaccompanied alien children obviously continues to be a hot button issue.  But today, I want to focus on two key issues related to them. 

“First:  Human decency.  Once these unaccompanied children are in the United States, we have a duty to ensure they are not trafficked or abused. 

“Second:  The rule of law.  Our immigration system is broken.  One problem is that half of these children are not showing up to their court hearings.  That’s not good for the kids or for our system.  We need to do better.

“I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about how we can make that happen”.