Customs and Border Protection (CBP) repatriated 93 percent of unaccompanied children (UAC) under age 14 from Mexico and Canada without documenting the rationale for their decisions, which may have put these minors at risk, according to an audit report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
During Fiscal Years 2009 through 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) apprehended more than 200,000 UAC—individuals under 18 without lawful immigration status and no parent or guardian in the US to care for them.
Homeland Security Today previously reported that Fiscal Years 2013-2014 alone saw a surge of over 60,000 unaccompanied minors who were lured to the US under misinformation that the administration would grant them a “permiso” allowing them to stay in the US.
The surge created a humanitarian crisis for the United States and set off a political firestorm. During the journey to the United States, many UAC encounter dangerous conditions, sometimes becoming victims of human trafficking and other egregious crimes. The non-governmental organization Appleseed has reported that these minors are often robbed, assaulted and sexually violated along the travel route.
Homeland Security Today reported earlier this year that the El Paso Intelligence Center’s (EPIC) July 7, 2014 intelligence assessment revealed the surge of UAC and families into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley that began in 2012 was most likely driven by traditional migration factors exacerbated by misperceptions of recent US immigration policies among migrants.
The EPIC report highlighted that, “These misperceptions are likely fueled by human smugglers and Central American media — providing deliberate, errant or unwitting reporting to migrants on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum and comprehensive US immigration reform.”
Consequently, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) charges DHS, in conjunction with the Department of State and Department of Health and Human Services, with developing policies and procedures to ensure unaccompanied minors are protected from these harmful activities.
A number of other policies, including the 1997 Flores v. Reno Settlement Agreement, ensured DHS meets the basic needs of UAC, including providing food and water and restroom facilities. In addition, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 included a provision for GAO to examine how DHS screens and cares for UAC.
After examining the extent to which DHS has developed policies and procedures to screen and care for UAC as required, GAO determined CBP agents “made inconsistent screening decisions, had varying levels of awareness about how they were to assess certain screening criteria, and did not consistently document the rationales for their decisions.”
One example stands out. In reviewing a random sample of case files from FY 2014, GAO found CBP repatriated about 93 percent of Mexican UAC under age 14 from Fiscal Years 2009 through 2014 without documenting the basis for decisions.
UAC from Canada and Mexico may be returned to their home countries by CBP under certain conditions, including that the individual has not been the victim of a severe form of trafficking, is not at risk of being trafficked if repatriated, does not have a credible fear of persecution and is able to make an independent decision to withdraw the application for admission to the United States.
Mexican and Canadian UAC who do not meet these criteria are required by TVPRA to follow the same procedures for UAC of other countries.
According to a 2009 CBP memorandum, UAC under the age of 14 are considered to be generally unable to make an independent decision. While there are exceptions, not all of the CBP officers GAO reviewed were aware of the requirements in this memorandum.
“Providing guidance on how CBP agents and officers are to assess against UAC screening criteria could better position CBP to meet legal screening requirements, and ensuring that agents document the rationales for decisions would better position CBP to review the appropriateness of these decisions,” GAO recommended.
In addition, while UAC are in DHS custody, the department is required to meet certain minimum requirements for care and custody. GAO found DHS generally provided care consistent with these policies. However, DHS does not collect complete and reliable data on care provided to UAC or the length of time UAC are in DHS custody.
Furthermore, under TVPRA, DHS is to transfer UAC to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). However, GAO found the transfer process to be both “inefficient” and “vulnerable to error.” For example, resulting errors have included assigning a child to two shelters at once, and consequently holding a bed open for 14 days when the child had already been assigned to another.
Consequently, GAO requested DHS develop a more efficient and effective process to refer, transfer and place UAC in shelters. In response to GAO’s report, CBP stated the agency has quickly adapted to these challenges and made a number of immediate changes.
“In the summer of 2014, an unprecedented number of children and families crossed the Southwest border,” said CBP in a statement. “The men and women of CBP worked tirelessly, compassionately and with pride and professionalism to respond to the humanitarian crisis. Their dedication and innovation led the government-wide response to the crisis and led to improvements in many processes that are now standardized.”
CBP continued, “Before and since the issuance of GAO’s draft report, the Office of Field Operations (OFO) reinforced the importance of properly processing unaccompanied children. In particular, OFO initiated dual notification to HHS and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement of an unaccompanied child that requires placement in a shelter to speed the process; began updating mandatory training on the processing of unaccompanied children; and refined their ability to track and report on actions associated with an unaccompanied child’s time in detention and to automate the records for care provided for unaccompanied children while in OFO’s custody.”
HHS is also taking steps to better protect the tens of thousands of UAC who cross the border each year. In advance of a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing earlier this month, HHS increased the number of doctors available to treat UAC, as well as legal staff available to them.
In addition, HHS expanded the Unaccompanied Children Help Line to receive calls from children concerned about the safety of their placements, published an interim final rule outlining safeguards that facilities must implement to protect children in custody from sexual abuse and has plans in place that would allow the department to add up to approximately 6,000 additional temporary beds upon 30 days’ notice, if needed and pending funding availability.
Compared with the record surge from last year, the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border into the US illegally has seen a substantial decline. Border Patrol has apprehended 26,685 unaccompanied children from Central America through June 30 of this fiscal year, which began October. 1, 2014—a 54 percent drop from last year.
HHS attributes the decline to the federal government’s response to the crisis.
“In substantial part, the number of unaccompanied children has fallen over the past year because the federal government has engaged in an aggressive, coordinated, multi-agency response to provide humanitarian care for unaccompanied children while also improving foreign government cooperation, increasing border security and providing assistance to governments in Central American countries to curb the flow of unaccompanied children,” HHS stated at the hearing.
However, Border Patrol officials have told Homeland Security Today that the number of UAC, families and others from Mexico, but especially Central America, has begun to increase, and that they expect these number to continue to grow.