Senate panel spars with Trump administration over treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children

Senate panel spars with Trump administration over treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children

A bipartisan group of senators lashed out Thursday at Trump administration officials over the treatment and supervision of unaccompanied immigrant minors being held in the federal government's custody.

Officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), however, pushed back against a Senate report knocking the administration at aSenate Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) hearing, citing a lack of authority and resources.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (R-Ohio) said the "fundamental issue" dogging the administration's handling of undocumented minors at the border is that none of the agencies involved in those cases takes responsibility for the children.

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"Who’s responsible when a child comes across the border?" Portman asked.

Portman told Commander Jonathan D. White, the coordinating official for HHS's family reunification effort, that senators on the committee believe HHS has authority and responsibility over the welfare of immigrant minors, even after they've been released to custody of private sponsors.

But White said HHS cannot care for minors "who are not in the physical custody of [the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)]."

"We have neither the authority nor the appropriations to exercise that level of care," he said.

At issue are more than 200,000 unaccompanied minors who've entered the country illegally over the past six years, according to the report.

Once minors are apprehended at the border, usually by DHS, they must be turned over to ORR within 72 hours. The minors are then held in detention facilities until a willing, appropriate sponsor can take the children in foster care.

Administration officials argue that, barring a call placed to sponsors 30 days after release, ORR's responsibility for the minor ends once foster care begins.

The subcommittee released a report Wednesday panning the administration for its handling of unaccompanied immigrant minors. Its first of 14 recommendations said HHS should recognize its responsibility over children in foster care, especially with sponsors who are not the minors' parents or legal guardians.

Among other observations, the report states that HHS is responsible for the unaccompanied alien children (UAC) until "final immigration court proceedings."

The three agencies put out a joint statement Thursday discrediting the PSI report.

"The report demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings of law and policy related to the safety and care of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC)," the statement reads.

"Despite Congress failing to enact any meaningful legislation to address pull factors and close loopholes in current law, the Subcommittee now erroneously indicates that those problems have been exacerbated by the Trump Administration. In fact, the Trump Administration has ensured enforcement of our immigration laws," it added.

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperTrump Jr. to Dem Senator: 'You admitted to hitting your wife so hard it gave her a black eye!' Melania Trump's spokeswoman gets Hatch Act warning for #MAGA tweet EPA to abandon restrictions against chemical linked to climate change MORE (D-Del.), PSI's ranking member, said he was surprised at the three agencies' coordination in quickly responding to the 52-page report.

"Overnight, your agencies were able to come to a consensus on a joint statement to the press that, in my opinion, makes baseless accusations on the accuracy of the report," Carper said.

Robert Guadian, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) witness at the hearing, and James McHenry, the witness for DOJ, both alluded to their agencies' limited roles in the custodial chain of UACs.

But Carper added that the senators were looking for "areas of agreement" to find how to legislatively help the agencies better care for the minors.

DHS, HHS and DOJ implemented a Joint Concept of Operations (JCO) in July — 17 months past the originally set deadline — to govern the care and responsibilities of unaccompanied immigrant children.

According to PSI's report, the JCO "does not address any of the recommendations offered by the Subcommittee."

White said the JCO is the "capstone of years of operational improvement" that's allowed for better background checks on sponsors, including checks on other adults who live in sponsoring households.

Carper pushed White on the more than 1,500 UACs whom the administration is unable to localize.

"There are no lost children. There are some families that don’t take our call, there’s a big difference," White said.

White added that many sponsors, some of whom may not have legal immigration status, don't answer the government's call after 30 days, because "many believe they have a cause to fear us."

"Your blanket statement that there are no lost children is simply inaccurate," Portman said. "What does sponsor mean if they don’t have to take the call?"

Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanHouse panel advances DHS cyber vulnerabilities bills Chris Pappas wins Democratic House primary in New Hampshire Overnight Health Care: Manchin fires gun at anti-ObamaCare lawsuit in new ad | More Dems come out against Kavanaugh | Michigan seeks Medicaid work requirements MORE (D-N.H.) scolded the administration's witnesses, saying it's "not acceptable" to deny responsibility for the unaccompanied children.

"A silent response to child welfare is not acceptable," she said.

Asked what legislative changes would empower their agencies to better care for UACs, DHS officials honed in on what's known as the Flores settlement agreement and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA).

Under Flores, minors — and their accompanying adult guardians — cannot be held for more than 20 days. The TVPRA has protections for minors in custody, including provisions that streamline repatriations to Mexico and Canada.

Guadian asked senators to "close the loopholes" in Flores and the TVPRA, while Hudson lobbied to eliminate the 20-day rule. 

But White took on a different tone.

"It was a wise decision to assign the care of children to a welfare agency, not law enforcement … please don't make us a law enforcement agency," said White. "It’s important that focus remains on welfare of the child and permanence of families."