During a recent hearing, House Republicans questioned why the Office of Refugee Resettlement would send 100 children to the same address.
The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations lawmakers raised concerns over the handling of illegal migrant children by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Secretary Xavier Becerra appeared before the subcommittee to address these issues.
One of the lawmakers, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), highlighted a troubling situation in Texas, where a single-family home in Austin allegedly received dozens of children from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Similarly, other homes across South and Central Texas have received an unusual amount of children.
“A single-family home in Austin, Texas had more than 100 children sent to it by Office of Refugee Resettlement, not by the cartels, by you all,” Mr. Burgess said. “Another Texas address and 44 children and a third hand 25, again, sent to them by ORR.”
Mr. Becerra contested the claim, stating that these were not the same house addresses but rather the same general geographic area. He argued that immigrant communities often congregate in certain locations, leading to higher concentrations of children in those areas. Mr. Becerra drew parallels with his own family’s experience, explaining that his father settled in Sacramento, California, due to the presence of relatives and friends.
However, Mr. Burgess refuted Mr. Becerra’s assertion, insisting that the cases involved children being sent to the exact same address. He emphasized that these incidents were not isolated, referencing complaints from the Houston chief of police about a similar phenomenon occurring in Houston, Texas.
The hearing also delved into the issue of document forgery and the need for tighter scrutiny in verifying the custody of illegal migrant children. Several lawmakers also raised concerns about the ease of forging documents in the digital age and stressed the importance of ensuring the safety and proper care of these vulnerable children.
As the hearing progressed, Mr. Becerra faced further questioning regarding the protocols and oversight measures in place to prevent such incidents and protect the well-being of illegal migrant children.
Lawmakers expressed their commitment to addressing these issues and promised to provide Mr. Becerra’s office with additional information related to the cases. The subcommittee emphasized the importance of finding effective solutions to prevent overcrowding and ensure the welfare of the children.
Other ORR Policies
In a memo from the committee chairman, the document asserts that the ORR claims to prioritize the “best interests of the child” and emphasizes the incorporation of child welfare principles in decision-making. However, the Republicans on the committee cited reports that have revealed significant failures in the ORR’s response and care for unaccompanied children (UC).
One of the major issues highlighted by the lawmakers was the difficulty in tracking the whereabouts of children released from ORR custody.
The memo also cited a report by The New York Times from February which offered evidence that HHS struggled to reach more than 85,000 children over the last two years, losing immediate contact with a third of them.
Caseworkers reportedly expedited the sponsor vetting process to meet increased demands, resulting in concerns about the children’s well-being.
Another aspect raised by the concerned lawmakers was the potential exploitation of these vulnerable minors in the child labor market.
Allegedly, many released children have been found working in labor-intensive industries, such as dishwashing, sheet washing, chicken deboning, and baking. Some even ended up in roles at slaughterhouses, food processing plants, the auto industry, and construction.
Recently, the Department of Labor (DOL) fined a Minnesota meat production plant for employing UCs, adding to concerns about child labor exploitation.
HHS’s Approach to Discharging Children
Mr. Becerra’s approach to expediting the discharge of children from ORR custody has also been a subject of discussion, according to the memo.
The HHS secretary’s reported emphasis on efficiency in processing placements led to the resignation of the former ORR director, Cindy Huang, and subsequently, her successor, January Contreras.
To address concerns about child labor exploitation and improve the placement process, the ORR conducted an internal audit in March 2023. The audit reportedly focused on the agency’s compliance with statutory requirements and program policies related to vetting sponsors with multiple unrelated UCs.
“While the ORR gave itself a gold star based on the results of the internal audit, independent reports and reviews paint a darker picture,” the majority committee staff memo stated. “First, child advocates worry these minors are being sponsored by strangers who could exploit them for child labor—the very thing HHS claims it is trying to curtail.”
While the congressional hearing raised a number of questions about the ORR’s procedures, both the agency and independent reports acknowledged the need for further improvements in the welfare and safety of unaccompanied illegal migrant children.
As the ORR addresses the raised concerns and takes steps to enhance its operations, advocates, and policymakers promised continued scrutiny of the agency’s efforts to protect and care for these vulnerable children.