At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he was worried about migrant children the government has lost track of after they crossed the border unaccompanied.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is required to take in children under the age of 18 who cross the border without a parent. The children are eventually placed under the care of sponsors, who may or may not be related to the child.
Lee said the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement’s policies related to ensuring the safety of migrant children aren’t adequate.
“Once you get a child, you start looking for a sponsor or alternatively, a sponsor may come to you, and then you do some kind of a precursory background check to figure out what’s going on to see if they’ve got any convictions in the United States,” Lee said.
But, he added, sponsors aren’t asked about their immigration status. The policies also don’t require checking in with a sponsor’s home country to see if there is a criminal record.
“You don’t come with local law enforcement. You seldom, if ever, do any kind of home visit. If they don’t answer the phone after a month or so, then you consider your job done,” Lee said.
The Utah senator asked Robin Dunn Marcos, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Given that you cannot remove a child once you’ve placed her with a sponsor, wouldn’t you agree that vetting on the front end should be increasingly more vigorous and not less?”
He also asked whether a home visit alongside local law enforcement should be a bare minimum.
Marcos said “thorough vetting processes” are in place, adding: “We have child welfare experts throughout the country. We believe a child is best in a family, with a family in a community, not in congregate care.”
Lee cut her off, saying he doesn’t doubt the intentions of her office, “but what you don’t do is alarming,” he said.
The senator cited an April New York Times report, which found that Health and Human Services lost contact with more than 85,000 children after they were placed with sponsors.
“Now, ORR has no earthly idea where these children are,” Lee said. He quoted Marcos’ comments during a House hearing in April, where she said that apart from the 30-to-37-day follow up, the agency does not “monitor or track the whereabouts of the children after they are released” to sponsors.
He asked Marcos to clarify: “They’re not lost because you’re not legally responsible to know where any of them are after you place them — yes or no?”
Marcos said her agency isn’t a law enforcement or investigative agency, which Lee quickly responded to and said he doesn’t doubt that.
But, he added, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is disclaiming responsibility for the 430,000 unaccompanied children who have crossed the border since President Joe Biden took office.
“What percentage of those children’s whereabouts can you tell me with any degree of certainty?” he asked.
Marcos replied, saying that Lee’s comments that her agency is responsible for lost children were inaccurate.