Overwhelmed by the surge of illegal immigrant youths at the U.S.-Mexico border, federal officials lowered safety standards and inadvertently placed unaccompanied minors in sponsors’ homes where they were abused, according to an Associated Press investigation.
The AP reports it has discovered more than two dozen migrant children whose sponsors “subjected them to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, or severe abuse and neglect.”
Without enough beds to house the record numbers of young arrivals, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lowered its safety standards during border surges in the last three years to swiftly move children out of government shelters and into sponsors’ homes. The procedures were increasingly relaxed as the number of young migrants rose in response to spiraling gang and drug violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to emails, agency memos and operations manuals obtained by AP, some under the Freedom of Information Act.
The AP’s report follows a similar whistleblower warning to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) revealed in November. According to the pair, the whistleblower alleged that based on a sampling of government data, at least 3,400 sponsors had criminal convictions including domestic violence, homicide, child molestation, and sexual assault.
Children from noncontiguous countries — like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — apprehended illegally entering the U.S. without a guardian are put in the care of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement which then places them with family members or sponsors in the U.S., ostensibly to await immigration hearings.
According to the AP in 2012, prior to the border surge, ORR maintained strict rules for placement. Those requirements fell by the wayside as the border crisis grew evermore severe in 2013.
First, the government stopped fingerprinting most adults seeking to claim the children. In April 2014, the agency stopped requiring original copies of birth certificates to prove most sponsors’ identities. The next month, it decided not to complete forms that request sponsors’ personal and identifying information before sending many of the children to sponsors’ homes. Then, it eliminated FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors.
The ongoing border surge has seen 38,759 unaccompanied minors apprehended in FY 2013, another 68,541 caught at the border in FY 2014 and 39,970 detained in FY 2015. The AP reports that since October 2013 more than 89,000 unaccompanied minors placed with sponsors throughout the U.S. and that advocates believe the two dozen abuse victims are like indicative of larger problem.
Advocates say it is hard to gauge the total number of children exposed to dangerous conditions among the more than 89,000 placed with sponsors since October 2013 because many of the migrants designated for follow-up were nowhere to be found when social workers tried to reach them.
Federal officials won’t disclose details of how the agency was stretched so thin, but say they are strengthening the procedures as the number of young migrants once again is on the rise, and recently signed a contract to open new shelters.
“We are not taking shortcuts,” HHS spokesman Mark Weber said. “The program does an amazing job overall.”
In recent months the number of apprehensions at the border have increased, suggesting this fiscal year could see some of the highest numbers yet. HHS told the AP it expects to be more prepared this time around with more beds.
While Democrats have argued that violence in Central America has caused the ongoing run at the U.S.-Mexico border, Republicans charge the Obama administration’s amnesty programs and lax immigration enforcement policies are the real root of the problem.
In reaction to the AP instigation, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte — a vocal critic of the administration’s immigration enforcement policies — blamed the abused children’s plight on Obama administration.
“The ongoing surge at the southwest border is a crisis of President Obama’s own making and places innocent children’s lives at risk. The Obama Administration’s policy of non-enforcement has encouraged these children to take the long and perilous journey to the U.S. in the first place, and now these children also face very dangerous situations once they arrive as a result of the Obama Administration’s lack of due diligence,” Goodlatte said in a statement Monday, calling the situation “tragic and unacceptable.”