June 18, 2019

With Report After Report Detailing The Mistreatment Of Migrant Children At Detention Facilities, Gillibrand Calls On Congress To Restrict Funding For Facilities That Do Not Meet Minimum Standards Of Care To Protect Unaccompanied Children

Gillibrand’s Call Comes as Trump Administration Requests Emergency Humanitarian Supplemental Funding to Help Address Border Crisis; Gillibrand Also Calls on Appropriators to Ensure Funding is Not Used to Intimidate Children’s Sponsors, Which Helps Create Capacity Problems; Gillibrand’s Two-Step Approach Would Help Reduce Over-Capacity and Ensure Children Held in Government Custody Are Safe and Receive Adequate Care

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today announced that she is calling on Senate Appropriators to restrict federal funding for government facilities housing unaccompanied migrant children that do not meet minimum standards of care meant to protect children. This comes as the Trump Administration requests emergency supplemental funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Unaccompanied Alien Children Program, which oversees facilities housing unaccompanied migrant children.

However, with report after report detailing the mistreatment of migrant children in detention and other ORR housing facilities, and the continued waivers being granted to contractors to house these children, Gillibrand today urged Senate appropriators to restrict funding from facilities that are not licensed by the state to care for children or that do not meet the minimum federal standards of care as prescribed by the Flores Agreement. Additionally, Gillibrand is also calling 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. 

“It is reprehensible that the facilities tasked with housing unaccompanied children are not subject to minimum standards of care, leaving children vulnerable to potential mistreatment. Far too many reports have surfaced of children being abused, and in some instances dying, while under ORR care. Despite a record amount of children being held in government custody, the Trump Administration has implemented policies that keep children in these facilities for longer than necessary, rather than ensuring they are placed in safe homes right away,” said Senator Gillibrand. “This is cruel and heartless, and Congress must hold the Trump administration accountable rather than let it use these children as a negotiating tool. That’s why I am calling on my colleagues to restrict funding from facilities that are not licensed to care for children, and to ensure that funding is not used to implement the Memorandum of Agreement, which too often scares off potential sponsors. As elected leaders, we are all responsible for the health and safety of the children who enter into our country.”

Gillibrand noted in her letter to Senate appropriators that while ORR should be prioritizing the reunification of every child in government custody with their families as soon as possible, it is instead carrying out policies that are forcing children to stay longer in government custody. 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.”

At the same time that children are being held in government custody for longer periods than necessary, arrivals at the border continues to grow, further exasperating capacity problems. These capacity problems are cited as the justification for the Trump Administration’s expansion of temporary, unlicensed facilities – including mass facilities known as “tent cities” – and as the reason to exempt housing facilities from providing the minimum state or federal standards of care. This places unaccompanied children in direct risk of harm, with many of the children being held in sub-par facilities with contracted staff that have been waived from background checks or training to care for children. According to documents from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), thousands of sexual abuse allegations are reported to ORR each year by unaccompanied children, and many of these cases occur at facilities that ORR has contracted with and waived safety standards for.

Gillibrand’s two-step approach would help reduce over-capacity and ensure that children held in government custody are safe and receive adequate care. By restricting funding from being used to implement the MOA, more sponsors would be able to step forward and take in children held in government custody, addressing the over-capacity problems cited as the reason to place children in sub-par conditions. It would also simultaneously require that any facility receiving federal funding to house unaccompanied children is licensed to do so and meets the minimum standards of care for children.

The full text of Gillibrand’s letter can be found here and below:

The Honorable Richard Shelby
Chairman
Senate Committee on Appropriations
S-128 U.S. Capitol
Washington D.C. 20510

The Honorable Patrick Leahy
Vice Chairman
Senate Committee on Appropriations 
S-128 U.S. Capitol
Washington D.C. 20510

The Honorable Roy Blunt
Chairman
Senate Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
131 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

The Honorable Patty Murray
Ranking Member
Senate Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies
131 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

Dear Chairmen Shelby and Blunt, Vice Chairman Leahy, and Ranking Member Murray,

As you negotiate the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Humanitarian Supplemental Bill (DHS Supplemental), I urge you to include the provisions included in the House FY20 Labor-HHS Appropriations bill concerning the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs) Program to restrict funding to ORR facilities that are not licensed by the state to care for children or meet the standards set by the Flores Settlement (Flores). I also urge you to include provisions that restrict the use of any funds for implementation of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between ICE, CBP, and ORR in which information obtained from children, such as citizenship status of potential sponsors, is being shared amongst these agencies. As arrivals at the border continue and the ORR Sponsors and Placement backlog grows, it is essential that we protect the health and safety for children in government custody by implementing policies that improve the expeditious placement of UACs with vetted sponsors and ensure compliance with Flores. It is imperative that we provide robust funding for ORR, but not at the expense of the wellbeing of children the government is responsible for.

ORR has a responsibility to properly shelter and care for unaccompanied children and to place them safely and expeditiously with sponsors. It is unacceptable that ORR has contracted with organizations that do not provide proper facilities and that cannot meet the minimum state requirements for holding children nor the federal requirements under Flores. The exemptions to staffing and safety requirements provided to these organizations through waivers approved by HHS has led to thousands of migrant children allegedly suffering sexual abuse while in U.S. government custody over the past four years, according to HHS documents . In FY 2018 the overall average length of care for a UAC in the program was 60 days . This means that the average child is being detained in sub-par facilities with caregivers that, in many instances, have been exempted from background checks or adequate training to care for children. This is unacceptable and the DHS Supplemental should prohibit funds from being used to establish or expand influx facilities that are not state licensed or Flores compliant.

Moreover, the capacity problems at ORR facilities are in large part due to continued mismanagement of their policies for the timely placement of UACs with sponsors. The reports, from various media sources and oversight bodies including the HHS Office of the Inspector General, have detailed a deeply unsettling reality for innocent children that deserve to be placed with sponsors and the families that long to be reunited . Among so many transgressions, the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) signed by HHS and DHS in April 2018 that allows for the sharing of sponsor information between ORR and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is complicating and delaying already-challenging UAC sponsor placement efforts. ORR should be prioritizing reunification of every child as soon as possible, but instead it appears to be responsible for policies that are forcing longer stays in government custody for children.

These capacity problems, largely due to the MOA, have forced ORR to waive safety requirements at their facilities which puts children in their custody at risk of harm. 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 .” Capacity problems continue to be cited as justification for the HHS’s expansion of temporary, unlicensed facilities, including the recent announcement of another new mass facility to hold as many as 1,600 migrant children in Carrizo Spring, Texas and the Administration’s consideration of detaining hundreds more youths on three military bases around the country, adding up to 3,000 new beds to the already overtaxed system . Considering this dire situation for children in government custody, I urge you to include provisions in the DHS Supplemental that restrict the use of any funds for implementation of the MOA between ICE, CBP, and ORR in which information, such as citizenship status of potential sponsors, is being shared amongst these agencies in order to advance the Trump Administration’s relentless targeting of immigrant communities.

Congress must ensure that the custody and processing of UACs by the US government is meeting the minimum standards required by domestic and international law. We need to fund ORR so that it can fulfill its mission to safely place UACs with sponsors, but we need to do it in way that is consistent with humanitarian principles and American values. We urge you to reject any funding agreement that does not include these important provisions for children.

Thank you,

Kirsten Gillibrand

United States Senator