Unaccompanied Minors from Central America: Keeping Them Safe in the United States

Unaccompanied Minors from Central America: Keeping Them Safe in the United States

Two recent reports have revealed that unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America have been released to “sponsors” who turned out to be human traffickers. How did this occur and what can be done to avoid this kind of error in the future?

The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) requires that a child be placed in a living situation based on a best interest of the child standard, ideally with a family member or friend of the family, often referred to as sponsors. The Act requires a home study for a child who is a victim of human trafficking, is mentally or physically disabled, has been a victim of physical or sexual abuse, or if the proposed sponsor clearly presents a risk of abuse, maltreatment, exploitation, or trafficking. Children who receive home studies are also eligible for follow-up services, often referred to as “post-release” services, which may include mental health care, assistance with school enrollment, and the identification and recruitment of legal counsel for the child, among other services.

On January 28th, 2016, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the US Senate Homeland Security Committee released a staff report which documented 13 cases of children being released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services (ORR/DHS) to human traffickers posing as sponsors of the children. Fifteen other cases were suspected to be linked to human trafficking. The most prominent case involved eight minors taken by a trafficking ring and forced to work 12 hours a day at an Ohio egg farm, with little pay and under substandard living and working conditions.

On February 22, 2016, the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report, requested by Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) entitled, Unaccompanied Children: HHS can take further actions to monitor their care. The report concluded that ORR/HHS has no tracking system for children once released from their custody and no completed case files for the majority of released children.

The agency was also criticized for not adequately monitoring contractors charged with the care of released children, including shelters in which children were placed. According to the report, only 9.5 percent of children released by ORR/HHS have received “post-release” services.

The two trafficking incidents resulted from the lack of sufficient screening of sponsors by ORR/HHS at the height of the Central American refugee crisis in the summer of 2014. Since April of 2014, more than 125,000 unaccompanied alien children have crossed the southwest border of the United States fleeing violence in the northern triangle region of Central America. According to ORR/HHS, in FY 2015 more than 90 percent of these children were released to sponsors, including non-relatives.

Because of the large numbers of children, the lack of bed space, and the resulting pressure to release them to sponsors within a short time frame, ORR/HHS suspended some screening requirements for sponsors, including some background checks and a requirement that sponsors provide original copies of children’s identification documents, including birth certificates. In some cases, numerous children were given to one sponsor. Between 2013 and 2015, home studies were conducted in only 4.3 percent of the child cases handled by ORR/HHS.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 23, 2016, Mark Greenberg of the Administration for Children and Families of HHS detailed steps the agency has taken in response to the reports. These steps include home studies and post-release services to more children, the expansion of background checks for sponsors, and the establishment of a “hot line” for children to call in emergency situations.

He also testified that ORR/HHS had implemented a pilot project to expand post-release services to all unaccompanied children released to a non-relative or distant relative sponsor. The expansion is also offered to children whose placement has been disrupted or is at risk of disruption within 180 days of release, and the child or sponsor has contacted the ORR help line.

Despite these steps, a question remains as to whether HHS and other agencies are doing enough to prevent unaccompanied children fleeing violence from becoming victimized again once in the United States. Advocates and child welfare experts have argued that all children released to sponsors should receive home studies and post-release services.

Prior to the Central American refugee situation, for example, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others had pointed to the lack of follow-up services for children as being detrimental to their well-being and placing them at risk of abuse. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), two NGOs which contract with ORR/HHS to provide home studies and follow-up services to children, have long advocated that post-release services be required to protect all children released from ORR/HHS custody, including those released to parents and other family situations.

Resources to conduct home studies and provide post-release services remain an ongoing problem. In testimony before Congress in 2014, USCCB argued that

[T] here exists little funding for services once children are released, increasing the likelihood for family breakdown, the inability of children to enroll in school and access community resources, and the likelihood that the child will not show up to their immigration hearings. Funding should be directed at increasing the number of home studies provided to sponsors prior to the child’s release from custody to assess any potential risks of the placement, including the protective capacity of the sponsor to ensure the safe reunification of the child.

Another key to protecting children post-release is access to legal representation. Attorneys can monitor a child’s situation as they are preparing the child’s case to ensure that he or she is safe and receiving appropriate care. Attorneys can also help to ensure that children appear at their immigration hearings and they greatly increase the child’s chances of winning relief. According to the American Bar Association, 92 percent of children with counsel appear in court, while only 27 percent appear when unrepresented; 73 percent with counsel secure immigration relief, while 15 percent prevail on their own.

In a presentation before the Center for Migration Studies’ Due Process and Access to Justice Conference January 26, 2016, Lenni Benson, professor of law and director of the Safe Passage project at New York Law School, argued that legal representation represents the key to ensuring that children are protected.

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security February 4, Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), stated that attorneys can act as “another adult” from whom the children can “seek assistance, and the attorney would likely be able to tell if something seemed amiss in the child’s life.”

In the end, the United States has a legal and moral responsibility not only to ensure that unaccompanied children have their day in court, but that they are safe during their time in the country. Congress and the Administration should work together to ensure that all unaccompanied alien children seeking refuge in the United States receive post-release services and legal counsel.