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 PortmanGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal 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 CarperDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House 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) HassanOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Dems blast rulemaking on family planning program | Facebook may remove anti-vaccine content | Medicare proposes coverage for new cancer treatment Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal Actor Chris Evans meets with Democratic senators before State of the Union 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."