Former top refugee official waived key background checks for migrant camp staff

Former top refugee official waived key background checks for migrant camp staff
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The former top refugee official in the Trump administration signed off on a waiver that let a refugee camp in Texas forgo rigorous background checks for staff that could have detected a history of child abuse, according to a government watchdog report.

Scott Lloyd, the controversial official in charge of refugee children at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), granted the waiver two days before the facility in Tornillo, Texas, began its operations in June, according to the report from the HHS Office of Inspector General.

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The report found that the two main reasons that Lloyd signed the waiver was pressure to move quickly to open the detention camp and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) assumed Tornillo staff had already undergone FBI fingerprint checks.

But none of the staff at Tornillo were subject to the FBI background check, the report found.

The issues at Tornillo "warrant immediate attention because they pose substantial risks to children receiving care at this facility," the report found. 

“Instead of FBI fingerprint checks, Tornillo is using checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data, thereby heightening the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children in ORR care,” the report said.

According to the report, all staff, contractors and volunteers at a facility operated by HHS must be subject to a child protective services check, also known as the child abuse and neglect check, as well as an FBI fingerprint check.

Lloyd had a tumultuous tenure running the agency and was transferred to another part of HHS last week.  

He oversaw the care of migrant children who were separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border under the administration's short-lived and controversial "zero tolerance" immigration policy.

He also faced scrutiny and outrage from abortion rights groups and congressional Democrats for his role in blocking unaccompanied minors in federal custody from getting abortions.

Between March and December of last year, Lloyd denied seven requests for abortions, according to depositions released by the ACLU in February, including for a minor who was raped.

The cost of caring for and housing migrant children has ballooned in recent months, and experts believe the costs will rise further as HHS has been struggling to keep up.

Under current law, migrant children who illegally cross into the U.S. must be sent to a government shelter where they stay until they can be united with relatives or other sponsors while awaiting immigration court hearings.

The administration has been housing children in so-called influx shelters, like Tornillo, which cost about three times as much as traditional shelters. They were meant to be temporary camps, but the migrant populations are growing and the shelters are showing signs of becoming permanent.

Migrant children’s time in government custody has grown longer this year, in part due to new policies from the Trump administration that make sponsors afraid to come forward because of immigration enforcement.