Chairwoman DeLauro Statement at Hearing on Unaccompanied Children in HHS Care

2019-07-24 09:39

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chair of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing "Oversight of the Unaccompanied Children Program: Ensuring the Safety of Children in HHS Care":

Good morning. Welcome to the Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Today’s oversight hearing will be discussing the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s unaccompanied children program and its errant reliance on influx facilities that do not adhere to state or federal standards of care for children.

Let me thank our witnesses for being here today. I will introduce them more before their remarks. Our first panel consists of…

  • Lynn Johnson, Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families;
  • Jonathan Hayes, Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement.

To start today’s hearing, I would first like to describe  what has put us into this crisis. The surge of unaccompanied children at our border is nothing new. It occurred as well in 2014 and 2016. Without doubt, we have seen increases this year that have worsened the situation. Make no mistake, it is administration policies that brought us to the brink: a crisis created by failed administration policies.

In 2017 and 2018, the administration initiated a zero-tolerance policy, which as a result, separated children from their parents, adding to the numbers of unaccompanied children. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security initiated a memorandum of agreement using children as bait and scaring sponsors from coming forward by rendering HHS as an immigration enforcement tool. How has the administration done this? Most chillingly, the administration introduced new bureaucratic delays and onerous fingerprinting requirements on sponsors. They began fingerprinting all members of the household beyond those individuals applying to be sponsors, thereby discouraging sponsors from coming forward, leaving children languishing in federal custody.

These failed policies strained the capacity of the network of HHS’s state-licensed residential shelters for children and led to the opening of emergency influx facilities like Homestead and Tornillo. Influx facilities are unlicensed shelters, essentially warehouses of children, that are not state or federal standards of care.

As the appropriations subcommittee which funds the Department of Health and Human Services, we have been talking about these intentional and harmful policy choices. We hosted a hearing on the UAC program earlier in 2019. We hosted a bipartisan private briefing with the office of the inspector general of HHS.

 And, we visited the influx facility in Homestead, Florida. Let me say that I was sorry that Ranking Member Cole could not attend because of a prior commitment. I know he wanted to be there. But, we extended the invite to our friends on the other side of the aisle.

On our visit, we confirmed that the federal government is using federal property to skirt federal standards of care. Why are federal facilities exempt?

 The guiding principle of U.S. and international law concerning these children must be the best interest of the child. Both the Flores Agreement and international law say that we should be keeping children for the shortest time and least restrictive setting possible.  

Visiting Homestead, we saw kids under guard. Children have no freedom of movement. They are always, wherever they go, accompanied by a guard. They wear lanyards with barcodes. The bedrooms have no doors. The bathrooms have no doors, only shower curtain liners. There is a guard at the door overnight, at the bunk dormitory.

Visiting Homestead, we learned they had only 4 physicians. No psychiatrists. And, only 5 certified teachers.

We saw the education facility, which is not conducive to learning. The sound of a typical South Florida rainstorm pouring down on this tent. It was so deafening they moved the congressional deletion into a different room to have conversations. We also discovered that the education curriculum and placement are not designed by Florida’s or Miami-Dade’s Department of Education, but by the contractor.

We were told by some of the children that they have been here 44 days, 56 days, 60 days, when in fact they have family members in the United States. Yet, we learned that over 1,000 children were moved to placement with a sponsor in a 2-week period. Let us be clear, this was not a matter of resources. This was a policy decision by ORR. It made us ask, if we could have these children this quickly, why were we not moving them all along.

And, we found that children are continuing to be separated from family members—aunts, uncles, grandparents—who are their primary caregivers. It is what we heard. That must end. I am working on legislation to address this.

We still do not know the level of information that is being communicated between the Departments of Health and Human Services and DHS and ICE. We need to be sure it is not putting the youngsters in jeopardy, nor their families. This is a concern for sponsors, who may not be willing to come forward if they are threatened with deportation.

We were shocked to see a checklist outlining the notification process to ICE when a child is just days away from turning 18 years old. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is not an immigration enforcement agency. They should not be emailing ICE two weeks out, one week out, and 24 hours out of a child turning eighteen.

The mission of the Office of Refugee Resettlement is to provide care and the expeditious placement for children with sponsors. That is what we are trying to do. That is our job. And, that is the agency’s job. Yet, HHS is clearly not on the same page. They have so obfuscated the goal of this agency, they have lost sight of their goal and mission.

Secretary Johnson, in my office, you said you wanted to create a, quote, “business model.” That is not correct. Nowhere in the mission statement of ORR does it say we should be building the capacity of detaining children for either short periods of time or longer periods of time.

So, let me say with the utmost and resolute clarity: we are not going to be setting up an indefinite, detention empire.

Instead, we must be taking the necessary steps to care for children in the least restrictive setting possible and place them in a safe setting with a family member or sponsor as expeditiously as possible.

To do so, we must be responsibly closing down Homestead and all influx facilities. We need clarity on  Carrizo Springs. And, I am not interested in us starting up an influx facility at Fort Sill. Rather than focusing on beds and more beds—which the administration continues to do— we need to be moving to a system that does not require unlicensed influx facilities and discharging kids to a safe setting.

Second, we must be ending the memorandum of agreement between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security, which is a deterrent to people who would otherwise be willing to come forward as sponsors. Let me quote an ORR grantee who says we are, quote, “using children as bait for immigration enforcement. It is alarming and cruel and under no circumstances is it justified.” That is the MOA. And, it needs to be terminated immediately.

And third, we need to be prioritizing a safe discharge process as opposed to simply expanding detention capacity. That should be our main goal as it is the stated mission of ORR.

The administration is telling us they want to create the capacity to detain 20,000 children, up from the current capacity of 12,000. Where did that number come from? The peak has been 15,000 children, which occurred last December. Instead of simply creating an unlicensed detention complex, we need detailed plans about a discharge process that gets children in and out of ORR’s care as quickly and safely as possible.

To close, let me say that the Congress has a legal and moral responsibility to conduct oversight of the UAC program and to ensure children are being taken care of. Our visit raised more questions than it provided answers and reminded us that our responsibility did not end with the emergency supplemental, it began anew. In fact, given the Trump Administration’s history on this issue, our responsibility as elected officials and as people is heightened. We cannot allow systematic, government-sanctioned child abuse on our watch.

Now, I would like to introduce my colleague from the state of Oklahoma, Ranking Member Tom Cole, for any opening remarks he would like to make.

116th Congress