On any given day, nearly 20 illegal immigrant children skip their deportation hearings and disappear into the shadows, the Trump administration said Thursday, putting contours on the difficulty the government faces in trying to stop the flow and protect the children.
More than 200,000 of the juveniles — known in government speak as Unaccompanied Alien Children, or UAC — have been released into communities in recent years and remain there, many of them ignoring deportation orders and others awaiting a judge’s ruling.
Yet top senators say many of them are “lost,” with the federal government having no clue where they are, how to deport them, or even whether they’re being abused.
“Shocking,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which is probing the matter.
Government officials insisted the children aren’t lost — as least as long as they’re in federal custody, meaning in one of the dozens of dorms taxpayers fund to hold the children across the country.
But that’s usually just an intermediary step. The goal, written into the law, is to release the children quickly to sponsors, who then are supposed to take care of them.
The Obama and Trump administrations have both said that’s when their responsibilities end.
“There are no lost children. There are some families that don’t take our call. There’s a big difference,” said Commander Jonathan White with the Public Health Service.
He was referring to a checkup the government ran over the last three months of 2017, when it called more than 7,000 families with whom it had placed children 30 days before. Of those calls, the government learned more than two dozen of the juveniles had run away within a month, and some 1,400 other families refused to answer the phone or to divulge any information on the whereabouts and treatment of the kids.
Senate investigators have been pushing for updated numbers from 2018 and had been told they would be able to get the data at a hearing Thursday. But Commander White disappointed them, saying he didn’t have the numbers with him as he testified.
Mr. Portman said he wanted to see the updates within two weeks.
Lawmakers were steamed over other responses from Commander White and officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, saying someone needs to take responsibility for the illegal immigrant children.
But the Health and Human Services Department, which Commander White represents, was reluctant to play that role.
He said it would require setting up a “national child welfare system” extending to every state, overlapping with the child protective services-style agencies that already exist in each state.
He said that would take not only a major rewrite of federal law, but also massive amounts of money.
“If that’s the desire, that will take clarification of authorities and very significant appropriations to accomplish that goal,” he said.
Lawmakers said they’re working on the legislative rewrite — but weren’t enthusiastic about finding the cash. One Democrat said state child welfare agencies work on shoe-strings and manage to get their job done.
UAC have been the trickiest part of the flow of illegal immigrants for years, beginning with their surge under President Barack Obama in 2014. During his administration, the government, admittedly caught off guard and overwhelmed, rushed to place children with any sponsors they could — often cutting corners on safety checks.
Children were placed with abusers or even sent to human traffickers pretending to be family friends, who sent the juveniles into forced labor on farms.
Those horror stories prompted the Senate subcommittee to investigate, and this week it released its latest report detailing new problems.
In one Florida case, a child was placed with a half-uncle, who then sent the boy to work in the fields in forced labor, the Senate investigators reported. The boy was rescued after his cousin, also forced to work in the fields, was injured and brought to the hospital, where Child Protective Services was notified and took all of the children away.
About 3 percent of the more than 200,000 children who have come since the surge began have been deported. The majority have been ordered removed but are ignoring those orders, while some have earned legal status.
Some 80,000 cases are pending — and that number is growing. Officials said the median time for a case to close is 465 days, and at least 8,000 cases have been pending more than three years.
The Trump administration is trying to hire more judges to speed the cases.
The government also has tightened up checks on families before they can sponsor children.
Yet the “great majority” of the children end up being sent to parents, aunts, uncles or siblings who themselves are in the U.S. illegally and trying to remain in the shadows, Commander White said.
Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, said asking the government to try to keep track of children it sends into those situations is an impossible task.
“Of course children are going to disappear and we’re going to lose track of them … if that family is by definition trying to disappear,” he said.
He suggested a new requirement that the children would go only to legal residents.
Commander White said that would cause a “humanitarian crisis.” He said it would leave the government with hundreds of thousands of additional children to care for in dorms, and they would also end up backing up at the border.
Mr. Lankford said there needs to be some solution beyond griping at the government for not being able to reach or control illegal immigrant families intent on disappearing.
“I just think we’re setting you all up for failure on this,” he said.
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