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Congress Needs Transparency Before It Could Consider Resettlement of Syrian Refugees

The Obama Administration has announced its intention to resettle a minimum of ten thousand Syrian refugees in the U.S. I have significant compassion for refugees fleeing the Islamic State, but the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has not been transparent or accountable in the past.

ORR’s involvement in the resettlement of tens of thousands of illegal aliens from Central America during the summer of 2014 raised many concerns about its functioning. Before we can begin a discussion about the resettlement of Syrian refugees, we must change the culture at ORR.

According to the State Department, the United States Refugees Admissions Program (USRAP) is comprised of several departments across government, including ORR.  My first experience with ORR came during the summer of 2014.  HHS sent representatives to Capitol Hill to brief Members and staff on multiple occasions about resettlement services for Central Americans illegally surging into our country.  I also visited an ORR shelter for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma on July 12, 2014.  What I saw and heard based on these interactions was appalling and led me to initiate an investigation of ORR.

First, during the course of my investigation I learned that ORR had not filed an annual report with Congress as required by Section 413(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act since FY2012.  The annual reports contain important information about “refugee placement”, “ORR refugee health initiatives”, and “discretionary grants” and are to be filed “no later than January 31 following the end of each fiscal year,…”  They are also vital because ORR’s budget has grown exponentially since 2012 when its enacted funding level was $768,334,000.  ORR requested $1.6 billion in its FY2016 “Justification of Estimates for Appropriations Committees”.

I wrote Secretary Burwell on November 21, 2014 to address these issues and demand that HHS submit ORR’s FY2013 annual report.  Subsequently, ORR Director Eskinder Negash resigned on December 9th.  HHS also submitted the FY2013 report to Congress last Spring, but Congress is still waiting on ORR’s FY2014 report (due January 31, 2015). I warned Secretary Burwell that “it becomes increasingly difficult to approve requested funding” without annual reports being submitted to Congress.”

Second, I became aware of allegations of child abuse against ORR shelter workers after reading a May 24, 2014 Houston Chronicle article titled “Crossing alone:  Children fleeing to U.S. land in shadowy system”.  The Chronicle’s investigation revealed that over one-hundred “significant incident reports” obtained from HHS through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request detailed instances where children were abused, sexually or otherwise, by shelter workers at ORR facilities between March 2011 and March 2013.  Incredibly, allegations of child abuse were not referred to the FBI and criminal cases “crumbled” because they were handed off to “local police and prosecutors”.

I wrote Secretary Burwell again on December 17, 2014 demanding more information about these significant incident reports and why HHS had failed to publish “a final rule adopting standards for the detection, prevention, reduction and punishment of rape and sexual assault” in ORR facilities as required by section 1101 of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act.  A week later, HHS released an interim final rule that was published in the Federal Register on December 24, 2014.  Further, Secretary Burwell’s February 23, 2015 response to my inquiry sidestepped the issue of child abuse as follows:  “No significant incident reports were filed against ORR employees in Fiscal Year (FY) 2014.  Care workers in facilities for unaccompanied children are not HHS federal employees, but employees of grantees of ORR.”  Secretary Burwell advised that HHS is working with federal authorities on the reporting of such allegations, but more accountability is needed when children are being preyed upon.

Allegations of child abuse and failure to produce annual reports have left a cloud hanging over ORR.  It has simply not proven transparent or accountable enough to undertake the resettlement of thousands of Syrian refugees.  It would be beyond inhumane to subject children fleeing the Islamic State to further abuse when they arrive in the U.S..  The curtains must be pulled completely back on ORR’s operations before we can trust it with a responsibility as serious as resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving the Seventh Congressional District of Tennessee. She serves as vice chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is a member of the House Budget Committee.

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