Carper, Portman, Blumenthal, Lankford Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Improve Care and Safety for Unaccompanied Children at Southern Border

WASHINGTON, DC – Yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), senior member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), introduced legislation – the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act – which requires The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to keep better track of and care for unaccompanied children (UACs) at the Southern border.  This measure, which was first introduced in September 2018, will help both ensure the children’s safety and ensure they appear at their immigration court proceedings.  A summary of the bill is here and the bill text is here.

Since FY 2014, HHS has placed more than 325,000 unaccompanied children with adult sponsors in the United States while they wait for their immigration court proceedings.  Prior to the pandemic, in FY 2019, HHS placed a record 69,488 unaccompanied children with sponsors in the United States.  In FY 2020, that number dropped significantly due to pandemic-related restrictions to 15,381.  DHS forecasts suggest that 117,000 children may attempt to cross the southern border this year. 

Following reports in 2015 that HHS placed eight unaccompanied children with human traffickers who put those children into forced labor in Ohio, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) has been conducting oversight of HHS’s program to care for those children. PSI, led by then Chairman Portman and Ranking Member Carper, has documented its findings in three reports, released on December 8, 2020August 15, 2018, and January 28, 2016.  PSI learned that no agency takes responsibility for enforcing sponsor agreements to care for these children once HHS places children with sponsors. PSI also learned that, although HHS began calling children and sponsors 30 days after placement after the Subcommittee’s 2016 report, HHS frequently could not reach the child or sponsor and could not determine their location with certainty—much less any information about the child’s well-being. 

Based on those oversight findings, yesterday, Senators Carper, Portman, Blumenthal and Lankford reintroduced the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act.  The bill clarifies that HHS is responsible for ensuring these children’s safety.  It requires HHS to run background checks before placing children with sponsors, to make sure sponsors live up to their agreement to care for the children and ensure they appear at their immigration court proceedings, and to notify state governments before placing children in those states.  And it increases immigration court judges so the Department of Justice can process all immigration cases more efficiently.

“For decades, we have seen waves of unaccompanied minors arrive at our southern border – young people who have left everything they know behind and made an incredibly dangerous journey in search of refuge. In many cases, these children have traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles fleeing extreme poverty and unspeakable violence in their home countries. Thanks to the work we have done on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, we have seen that significant gaps in our broken immigration system continue to fail these migrant children and make an already challenging reality they face even more difficult, and, too often, more dangerous,” said Senator Carper. “As the Biden Administration grapples with the rise of children arriving at our southern border and seeks to implement measures to treat these migrant children with the dignity and the respect they deserve, there is more we can do on a bipartisan basis. This legislation we are reintroducing today will help to ensure we can protect an already vulnerable population and that we do not make it harder for these minors to adhere to our immigration processes. I want to thank my colleagues for their willingness to work toward productive solutions that keep these children safe, as we have a moral obligation to ensure that they are given a fair chance in our immigration system.”

“Our southern border is in a state of crisis, as law enforcement officials struggle to handle the surge in unaccompanied minors entering our country,” said Senator Portman. “The situation underscores the need for this bipartisan piece of legislation, which will keep track of unaccompanied minors in our country, protect them from trafficking and abuse, and help ensure they appear for their immigration court proceedings. This should not be a partisan issue and I am pleased to join with Senators Blumenthal, Lankford, and Carper in advocating for responsible care of these children and upholding our immigration court system. Our holding facilities are nearing capacity and the number of unaccompanied minors detained at the border continues to rise at a rapid pace. We must ensure these children are properly taken care of and protected.”

“The goal of this bipartisan bill is simple: to protect vulnerable children who have come to the United States seeking refuge. Children who risk their lives to make a dangerous journey in pursuit of asylum in the United States are often fleeing unimaginable violence—they shouldn’t then have to worry about falling victim to human trafficking or being handed over to abusive adults once they get here. Our bipartisan legislation will ensure that the Department of Health and Human Services properly fulfills its obligation to protect the safety and well-being of unaccompanied immigrant children,” Said Senator Blumenthal.

“We have a responsibility to ensure the safety of children who have been discharged from the care of the federal government until their immigration proceedings conclude. This problem will not get better if we don’t first secure our southern border and discourage economic migrants, including children, from making the long, treacherous trip to the US-Mexico Border,” said Senator Lankford. “It is unacceptable that HHS routinely places unaccompanied minor children in the custody of people illegally present in the US but then doesn’t confirm the wellbeing of the children, even when they don’t show up for court. The federal government shouldn’t be able to just place children in a home and never check on them or ensure they see a judge.”

NOTE: The following describes how the bipartisan measure addresses specific issues involving unaccompanied minors:

Clarification of HHS Responsibilities

  • Problem:  HHS denies that it has legal responsibility for UACs once they are placed with sponsors.  If sponsors abuse the children or fail to ensure they show up for their immigration court proceedings, HHS denies that it has authority to remove the children from those sponsors’ care and relies entirely on state and local welfare agencies to respond to reports of problems.  HHS testified to PSI that, based on telephone calls to sponsors 30 days after placement, they were “unable to determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475 UAC” placed with sponsors over a three-month period.
  • Solution:  This legislation clarifies that HHS has ongoing authority to care for UACs until the child’s immigration proceedings conclude.  It mandates that HHS must do background checks on all potential sponsors and other adults in the household.

Care of Unaccompanied Alien Children

  • Problem:  If a sponsor neglects a UAC or fails to ensure the child appears at his immigration proceedings, HHS does not rescind the sponsorship agreement automatically.
  • Solution:   This legislation requires HHS to terminate sponsorship and reassume physical custody of the UAC if a non-parental sponsor fails to comply with his sponsorship agreement.  It also requires sponsors to accept post-release services when offered by HHS.

State Notification

  • Problem:  Currently, HHS does not notify states or localities when it places UACs with sponsors in a state. 
  • Solution:   This legislation requires HHS to notify state welfare agencies before it releases UACs to sponsors within a state.  Notification will help states better prepare for UACs living in their states and help legal service providers gain better access to UACs—which will help ensure their presence at immigration proceedings.

Additional Immigration Judges

  • Problem:  The immigration courts have a nearly 1.3 million case backlog, 103,587 of which are UAC cases.
  • Solution:   This legislation provides 225 additional immigration judge teams to help reduce the backlog.