As Flood of Migrant Children Into U.S. Continues, Committee Concerned HHS Response Putting Kids In Harms' Way

Press Release

Concerned with the welfare of unaccompanied children entering the southern United States, Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee today sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Burwell. In light of reports of horrific abuse, the committee members are concerned with current operations within the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and have detailed eight questions on current policies. Federal law places responsibility for the unaccompanied child's health and well-being with HHS.

The letter highlights the staggering numbers of unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the United States. The members write, "Since 2011, over 129,000 children have been apprehended at the border and placed in temporary ORR custody. In fiscal year 2014, the number of unaccompanied children increased dramatically as over 57,000 children were placed in the care of ORR, and numbers soared once again this fall. In the last three months, 17,370 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the Southwest border and placed into the custody of ORR. In comparison, 7,989 children were apprehended and placed in custody during the same time period last year."

The members also highlight instances of horrific abuse, writing, "News reports have called into question the health and well-being of unaccompanied children both while in the custody of ORR, and after ORR places children into the homes of sponsors. For example, a recent article in The Washington Post tells the story of an unaccompanied child placed with sponsors in central Ohio, who were later discovered to be human traffickers who forced the child to work 12 hours a day on an egg farm. The Associated Press highlighted six separate instances of abuse, including:

A 14-year-old Honduran girl whose stepfather forced her to work over a period of several months at cantinas in central Florida where women drink, dance and sometimes have sex with patrons.

A 17-year-old from Honduras sent to live with an aunt in Texas, who forced her to work in a restaurant at night and clean houses on weekends, and often locked her in the home.

A 17-year-old Guatemalan placed with a friend's brother in Alabama who vowed to help him attend school, but instead was made to work in a restaurant for 12 hours a day to earn rent. …"

Committee members are concerned that relaxed standards, including rolling back fingerprinting requirements and lesser background checks of potential sponsors, have put these vulnerable children in harms' way. Members of the committee also point to the agency's placement process, and the alarming fact that ORR only check in on children after being placed in a small number of cases.

The committee leaders conclude, "When asked about ORR's services after children are released to sponsors, ORR officials told committee staff that ORR's legal responsibility ended once a child was placed with a sponsor. ORR officials said that ORR had no statutory authority to take action post-placement, but ORR officials were unable to explain why or cite any statute limiting ORR's authority."