Unaccompanied Minors Program: Two Agendas, Zero Consensus, One Hot Mess

Youth Services Insider took in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing this week on the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program, under which custody of kids at the border is transferred from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

It is one of the few programs through which the federal government attains custody of children. UAC was a relatively tiny and unnoticed program until 2013, when the number of children in the program skyrocketed.

For Republicans, this week’s hearing was an opportunity to publicly question the very existence of the arrangement, which, it is worth noting, came into existence during the administration of George W. Bush.

For Democrats, it was a chance to push for additional funding for a program that was appropriated $267 million in 2013 and $868 million in 2014. They called for additional spending for lawyers to aid unaccompanied minors, and for post-placement services to help their caregivers in the United States.

The discussion of those competing agendas did well to establish that whatever your hope for the future of the UAC program is, it is a hot, dysfunctional mess right now. And a Government Accountability Office report published this month backs up that notion.

To understand the many aspects of that dysfunction, it’s important to know how the whole thing works. So here is basically how a UAC case should flow.

A child (anywhere from a little kid to a teenager) arrives with no supervision at the Mexican border. But he’s not from Mexico; he’s from Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador, where drug trafficking and the collateral gang violence terrorize the citizenry.

The child is apprehended by ICE border patrol officers, and more often than not, they have contact information for a relative in America. Either way, the child is handed over to the custody of HHS, more specifically its Office of Refugee Resettlement.

HHS now has custody of that child, and the youth is placed at one of HHS’ residential grantees. Those grantees are charged with the care, shelter, nutrition, health and education of the child.

The objective then becomes to find a sponsor in the United States to care for the child. First, a sponsor has to be identified; in the majority of cases, it is one of the child’s parents or a close relative.

Next, the grantee must conduct background checks to ensure that the sponsor is an appropriate caregiver. If that is the case, custody of the child transfers from HHS to the sponsor.

While all of this happens, there is still the matter of a child formally seeking asylum from his or her country of origin. Without asylum or some other avenue of legal standing, the sponsorship arrangement should only last until the child is returned home.

But the reality on the ground tells a different story. Following is a look at the challenges all the way down the line with the UAC program.

Transfer from ICE to HHS

From fiscal years 2003 through 2011, ICE transferred fewer than 10,000 unaccompanied children per year to HHS. Beginning in fiscal year 2012, the number rose to unprecedented levels and peaked in fiscal year 2014 at nearly 57,500.

The massive influx of kids in 2014 had HHS stashing thousands of minors at military bases while it figured out what to do next. The number of unaccompanied minors fell substantially in 2015, but is back on the upswing now, with 20,455 unaccompanied minors apprehended in January alone.

HHS Custody

When the 2014 surge happened, HHS was desperately scrambling for grantees. YSI was on a call that summer during which HHS officials told a group of providers, “We need beds…now.”

The result? Immediately, there weren’t a lot of takers. But eventually, UAC’s residential portfolio grew from a network of 27 grantees handling 1,900 beds to 57 handling 7,800 beds.

This component of the UAC program was not a political hot potato at the meeting. But Kay Brown of the GAO, a witness at the hearing, discussed findings that paint a very uncertain picture of the arrangement.

GAO selected 27 case files to review and found the following:

  • No evidence of legal counseling for half of those youths
  • No evidence of required group counseling sessions for 10
  • Five missing any clinical progress notes

“It is difficult to verify that required services were actually provided,” the report said.

On top of that, GAO found that “many facilities went several years without receiving a monitoring visit” from HHS. It identified 15 facilities that had not been monitored in the past seven years.

A universe of grantees that was already lightly monitored has more than quintupled in size and shows murky results for collectively having performed the basic services required of them.

Which leaves one to wonder exactly what we are doing for these kids past putting them in a bed and feeding them.

That does not mean every kid is just being stuck in a bed until a provider can get rid of them. But it does suggest that doing so would be easy to get away with, and that the quality of care for UAC kids is totally reliant on the integrity of the provider.

“That is totally true,” a leader at one longtime UAC grantee told YSI.

Sponsors and Screening

HHS leadership says it has a handle on the sponsor vetting process, but here are three facts that really call that into question:

Fact One: In 2014, authorities discovered eight unaccompanied minors living in a cramped trailer on an egg farm. One boy told authorities they were warned that if they tried to leave, they would be killed.

Fact Two: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) discussed his recent visit to Heartland Alliance, one of the UAC grantee providers in his home state. He asked staff how things were going.

“They told me, ‘We’re worried that we’re so overwhelmed, we can’t do appropriate background checks on sponsors,’” Durbin said at the hearing.

Fact Three: In November of 2015, a whistleblower came forward to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley. Grassley, in his statement at the hearing this week, said the whistleblower informed him that “minors were being released to sponsors with criminal records that included domestic violence and child molestation.”

That is the front end of the process. On the back end, two things in the UAC continuum are troubling.

First, there is essentially no government supervision of UAC kids once they are handed off to sponsors. Mark Greenberg, HHS acting assistant secretary at the Administration For Children And Families, said at the hearing that parent sponsors immediately obtain legal and physical custody of the child.

For non-parents, he said, “physical custody moves and we recommend they obtain legal custody.” Who they obtain that custody from is unclear though, because Greenberg was also direct in saying that HHS legal custody ends after the child leaves the shelter of an HHS grantee.

Second, there seems to be little done in the way of post-placement services for any of these sponsors and kids. The GAO found less than 10 percent of unaccompanied children received post-release services.

Court Process

There are a few avenues for an unaccompanied minor to remain in the country, but the primary one is to seek asylum. And this is where you find the most acute political split on this issue.

A comment from Patrick Leahy, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee:

“These children are fleeing horrific, heartbreaking violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They face murder rates many times higher than children in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them. They come here seeking safety and refuge. And too often, we are failing them.”

And here is Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-Ala.) take on the same subject:

“It cannot be that every young person from Central America is entitled to asylum. It just cannot be. …Are we saying that kids in every country that has a high crime rate can enter the country illegally? Gimme a break!”

If Sessions’ position sounds cold to you, remember that we do not extend the same helping hand to children attempting to flee violence in Mexico. The UAC procedures apply only to noncontiguous countries; Mexican children are immediately returned home.

Asylum debate aside, there is no question that the UAC legal process is a joke. During a one-year period from July of 2014 to July of 2015, immigration judges issued a decision in 13,000 of the 35,000 UAC removal proceedings brought by the Department of Homeland Security. Of those 13,000 decisions, 88 percent were made “in absentia,” with the child in question not in the courtroom.

For those children who do participate in the legal process, there is no requirement that they have a lawyer. If the concept of a pre-teen, non-English-speaking Honduran child going pro se into an immigration proceeding makes sense to you…don’t send us an op-ed to that effect. We won’t run it.

Durbin cited numbers that prove what a smell-test should already tell you about that scenario. Between 2012 and 2014, Durbin said, 73 percent of the children represented by lawyers were successful in making asylum claims. Fifteen percent of the kids who made claims without a lawyer were successful.

Honestly, YSI would love to know how those 15 percent pulled it off.  They should have spots waiting at Harvard Law!

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1212 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.