Washington, DC – Following disturbing reports from federal oversight agencies and the media of children being held for extended periods of time in unlicensed facilities, U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) called on the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to immediately reevaluate and reform its policies concerning migrant children in its care. The Senators called out ORR for being in direct violation of the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement (Flores), which established that children must be released to sponsors or transferred to licensed facilities as quickly as possible. Despite receiving the nearly $3 billion in full funding it recently requested, ORR is still in violation of Flores, failing to address the humanitarian needs of children and keeping them detained in unlicensed facilities that do not have properly vetted staff and are not adequately equipped to provide care.
“We cannot compromise on the safety and wellbeing of children facing extended lengths of stay in government custody, and already we’ve seen far too many examples of abuse. ORR needs to immediately implement policies that ensure facilities comply with state vetting and training requirements for staff, no matter how quickly the facility needs to be operationalized,” the Senators wrote. “…ORR should be prioritizing reunification of every child as soon as possible, but instead it has been responsible for policies that are forcing longer stays in government custody for children. You now have the funding you said you needed, and your office must ensure that the custody and processing of UACs is meeting the minimum standards required by domestic and international law.”
Last month, Gillibrand called on Senate Appropriators to restrict funding for facilities that do not meet minimum standards of care to protect migrant children. Gillibrand also called for appropriators to restrict any funding that may be used to implement the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and ORR, in which information obtained from children, such as citizenship status of potential sponsors, is shared between these agencies. This would help reduce the manufactured over-capacity problem that the Trump Administration cites as the need for unlicensed facilities.
A copy of the letter may be found here and below:
Mr. Jonathan Hayes
Office of Refugee Resettlement
Department of Health and Human Services
330 C Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201
Dear Director Hayes,
Recent reports, from various media sources and oversight bodies including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Inspector General, detail a deeply unsettling reality for innocent children in your custody and the affected families that long to be reunited. As you know, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was just allocated nearly $3 billion more to address humanitarian needs, so there should be no more excuses for providing a standard of care that is outlined in the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement (Flores). The established practices outlined in Flores require children be released to sponsors or transferred to non-secure, licensed facilities as “expeditiously as possible.” These policies have clearly not been followed recently, as too many children have been held in unlicensed facilities longer than necessary. As a result, ORR and the U.S. Government are in direct violation of Flores. ORR must reevaluate and reform its policies concerning children in its care or it will continue to fail its obligations under Flores, to the children they are responsible for, and to the American values they have sworn to uphold.
It is unacceptable that ORR has contracted with organizations that do not provide properly vetted staff and that are evidently not adequately equipped to care for children. For example, the ORR facility responsible for holding unaccompanied alien children (UAC) in Homestead, Florida (Homestead) is managed by a for-profit contractor which is not state licensed, and therefore cannot access the state’s child abuse and neglect (CAN) background check system. Last month, the seventh allegation of child sexual abuse at Homestead was revealed by a public records request. The exemptions to staffing requirements provided to these organizations through waivers approved by HHS require careful reconsideration, especially after Congressional inquiry revealed thousands of reports of migrant children suffering sexual abuse while in ORR custody over the past four years, including almost two hundred contractor staff-on-minor allegations of sexual assault . Furthermore, the overall average length of stay for children held with these staff has increased, from about 34 days in 2016 to around 60 days in FY 2018. We cannot compromise on the safety and wellbeing of children facing extended lengths of stay in government custody, and already we’ve seen far too many examples of abuse. ORR needs to immediately implement policies that ensure facilities comply with state vetting and training requirements for staff, no matter how quickly the facility needs to be operationalized.
The capacity problems at ORR facilities are further exacerbated by this Administration’s continued mismanagement. In order to improve the efficiency of ORR’s sponsor placement system and get children out of government custody faster, ORR should prioritize policies that fully facilitate the placement of children with sponsors and reject policies that do not. As an example, the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed by HHS and DHS in April 2018 that allows for the sharing of sponsor information between ORR, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is complicating and delaying already-challenging UAC sponsor placement efforts. According to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “[the information sharing MOA] is a part of the same strategy as the infamous family separation policy, and that the government knew it would result in fewer sponsors coming forward and children remaining in custody for longer periods of time.” Not only must ORR rescind the MOA, it must fully reevaluate its policies to root out other policies which may be frustrating the expeditious placement of UACs with vetted sponsors and ensure compliance with Flores.
Well-documented capacity problems are cited as justification by ORR to establish and expand “temporary” Influx Care Facilities with waived safety requirements for facilities and staff, such as the Homestead center near Miami holding thousands of unaccompanied children in little more than tents. According to Peter Schey, the President and Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law Foundation, “The conditions at Homestead are very similar to conditions in a prison camp…Children detained there suffer tremendous psychological harm.” With the announcement of another new mass facility set to hold as many as 1,600 migrant children in Carrizo Spring and considering the dire situation for all children across the ORR Unaccompanied Children Program, I urge you to ensure these “temporary” shelters remain temporary and are beholden to stringent compliance requirements for state-licensing as they become operationalized. ORR must not establish or expand Influx Care Facilities that are not state-licensed or Flores-compliant without stringent compliance oversight.
We must not compromise on the wellbeing of children the government is responsible for. ORR should be prioritizing reunification of every child as soon as possible, but instead it has been responsible for policies that are forcing longer stays in government custody for children. You now have the funding you said you needed, and your office must ensure that the custody and processing of UACs is meeting the minimum standards required by domestic and international law.