Putting kids over politics
This week, my colleague Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, and I released an important report. Despite our different political affiliations, we came together to examine what the Trump Administration is doing to protect unaccompanied minors — migrant children who arrive at our border without guardians — who are living in our country. Unfortunately, the answers we found were not reassuring.
This isn’t the first time Senator Portman and I have teamed up to tackle this issue. Back in April, we held a hearing with the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to review the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) efforts to protect unaccompanied minors from human trafficking and abuse. As the top Democrat on this bipartisan subcommittee, I work closely with Senator Portman to investigate a wide variety of matters that we decide deserve a closer look at Congress. Together, we are given the privilege and broad authority to ask tough questions that no one else is asking.
During our April hearing, we did just that. We heard troubling reports from a Sussex County school counselor detailing the difficulty of unaccompanied youth children adjusting to school and the high rates of mental emotional trauma associated with migrant children. We also heard reports of children being placed in homes with people they don’t know who expect them to work to help with living expenses; we heard about children, sometimes due to a need to send money home or to pay debts to smugglers, working all night and unable to stay awake at school during the day. To top things off, it was during this time that HHS informed us that they had actually lost track of about 1,500 children who were placed in their care. Dozens more ran away from home or were found to have moved in with someone not vetted by HHS at all. To say this is unacceptable would be a gross understatement.
But, despite our warnings this past spring, officials at HHS and DHS are still not doing enough. While the administration has made incremental progress in some areas, not nearly enough is being done to ensure that children living in this country are protected from abuse. In fact, President Trump has taken steps that not only hindered our progress, but needlessly inflicted trauma on thousands of children. Their cruel “zero-tolerance” policy separated parents from their children at our border and created 2,500 new unaccompanied children for HHS to care for.
Yesterday, I once again demanded answers on what this administration is doing to protect this vulnerable population, because we have a moral responsibility to ensure that these migrant children fleeing their homes and extreme violence are safely and responsibly guided through the immigration process. In the absence of leadership from the administration, I believe Congress must now come forward with legislation that would ensure we’re living up to our most basic responsibilities to the vulnerable children coming to us for help. Together, we can look for inspiration in people like Laura Graham, Deputy Director and Managing Attorney of the immigration and Medical-Legal Partnership Programs at Community Legal Aid Society Inc. in Delaware. As a legal advocate, Laura helps unaccompanied children navigate the complex requirements of our immigration process.
Resolving these issues not only requires policy changes from DHS and HHS, but reminds us of the need to address the root cause of the problem: extreme poverty and unspeakable violence in countries like the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Over the years, I’ve visited these places, met with their leaders and seen firsthand how communities there are struggling to deal with challenges that would be unimaginable to most Americans. As long as these challenges go unaddressed, migrants will continue to make the dangerous trek to our southern border in search of refuge.
When we look to address the complexities of our immigration process, we cannot forget the teachings of Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger in your land and you welcomed me.” Thus far, this administration’s treatment of those arriving here seeking refuge have failed on that most basic measure. You have my commitment to keep fighting for policies that do right by these children, their families, and our shared American ideals.