Carper, Portman, Blumenthal, Lankford, Reintroduce Bill to Improve Care & Safety for Unaccompanied Minors, Accelerate Immigration Court Proceedings

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators  Tom Carper (D-DE), Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and James Lankford (R-OK), and today reintroduced bipartisan legislation – the Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act – that requires HHS to keep better track of and care for unaccompanied alien children (UACs).  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 October 2014, HHS has placed more than 183,000 unaccompanied alien children (UACs) with adult sponsors in the United States while they wait for their immigration court proceedings.  Since 2015, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) has been conducting oversight of HHS’ program to place unaccompanied minors with sponsors in this country following reports that HHS placed eight unaccompanied minors with human traffickers who put those children into forced labor in Ohio.  PSI, led by Chairman Portman and Ranking Member Carper, has documented its findings in two reports, one released on August 15, 2018 and the other on January 28, 2016.  PSI learned that no agency takes responsibility for enforcing sponsor agreements to care these children once HHS places children with sponsors.  HHS has started calling the children 30 days after placement.  In April 2018, the Subcommittee learned that out of 7,635 calls made from October to December 2017, 28 children had run away from their sponsors, and HHS could not determine with certainty the location of 1,475 of them.  The FY 2018 Q3 results were similar. From April 1 to June 30, 2018, HHS tried to call 11,254 UACs and their sponsors.  Twenty-five had run away from their sponsors, and HHS could not determine the whereabouts of 1,488 of those children.

Based on those oversight findings, Senators Portman, Blumenthal, Lankford, and Carper today 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. 

“The bipartisan work done by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) has shed much needed light on the fact that the already challenging reality migrant children have to face is being made even more difficult and more dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be the case and, as this legislation makes clear, the solutions don’t have to be partisan,” said Senator Carper. “The Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act is a good, constructive step forward that will help to ensure we do a better job protecting an already vulnerable population and that we don’t impose unnecessary hurdles that just make it more difficult for these unaccompanied minors to adhere to our immigration processes. We have a moral obligation to ensure that these children are safe and given a fair chance to show up at their court proceedings. I’m pleased to reintroduce this bill, and I thank my colleagues for their willingness to continuing working toward productive solutions.”

“This bipartisan legislation is designed to address some of the problems we’ve found that led to HHS placing eight children with human traffickers and into forced labor in Ohio,” said Senator Portman. “This bill will ensure that we keep track of unaccompanied minors in our country, protect them from trafficking and abuse, and help ensure they appear for their immigration court proceedings. These efforts are critical for safeguarding these children and upholding our immigration system. This isn’t a partisan issue.  Many of the problems that exist today began during the previous administration and have continued under this one, and we have a responsibility to get it right.”

“The goal of this bipartisan bill is simple: to protect vulnerable children who have come to the United States seeking refuge,” said Senator Blumenthal. “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.”

“As we work to get Congress to wake up and address the rapidly accelerating humanitarian crisis at the border, I am grateful that this bill will at least clarify that the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring the safety of unaccompanied minors even after those children are placed with a sponsor,” said Senator Lankford. “HHS routinely places children in the custody of people illegally present in the US but then does not follow up on the safety of those children, even when they do not show up for court proceedings. In the same way states are responsible for children placed in foster homes, we must provide clear directives for how to care for children in federal custody. I am grateful to Senator Portman and my colleagues for their work to provide clarity to the complicated process of protecting the rising number of migrant children in our immigration system, especially as increasing child smuggling and human trafficking attempts reinforce the need for extra layers of protection for these children in federal custody.” 

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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Additional Immigration Judges

  • Problem:  The immigration courts have a 800,000+ case backlog, 86,000 of which are UAC cases. 
  • Solution:   This legislation provides 225 additional immigration judge teams to help reduce the backlog.