How the Obama Administration Let Down Kids Who Sought Refuge in America
Policy + Politics

How the Obama Administration Let Down Kids Who Sought Refuge in America

© Carlos Barria / Reuters

Federal agencies were overwhelmed in 2014 by a flood  of unaccompanied children from Central America who crossed illegally into the U.S. hoping to be reunited with family members escaping poverty and violence in their countries -- or both. Nearly 57,500 children traveling without parents or guardians during that year alone raised the question of how well the Obama administration would cope with the influx and how well the children would be housed and treated while awaiting a legal disposition of their cases.

A Government Accountability Office report issued on Monday provides some important insights into the government’s performance, and overall it is not a reassuring picture.

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While the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) managed to funnel most of the young refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries through a series of temporary shelters to family members or guardians, there was no effective oversight of how the children were  treated and whether they were afforded all the necessary medical, educational and legal services.

According to the GAO study, first reported on Sunday by The Washington Post, there is no system for tracking the children once they leave government-sponsored shelters. “The rapid increase in children entering ORR care from 20111 through 2014 has at times strained ORR’s capacity to find shelter beds and raised questions about ORR’s management of its program for unaccompanied children,” the report states. “There are reports that the increase has also created challenges to communities in which these children are eventually placed.”

Agency officials stressed that they generally are not required by law to track or monitor the well-being of these children once they are released to their parents, sponsors or guardians, although they try to keep tabs as best they can through post-release services, including a national call center. However, during visits to nine government shelters for the children, GAO investigators doing random checks of case files found woefully incomplete documentation that services had been rendered – including informing children of their legal rights to representation.

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“Based on the findings in this report, it’s no wonder that we are hearing of children being mistreated or simply falling off the grid once they are turned over to sponsors,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), one of three Republican senators who requested the report last year, according to The Post. “The Obama administration isn’t adequately monitoring the grantees or sponsors whom we are entrusting to provide basic care for unaccompanied children.”

The 64-page report was released one day before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Grassley chairs, hears testimony from the administration about its handling of the massive influx of unaccompanied children and some mothers with young children. The ORR has come under sharp criticism following reports that some of the children thrust into the system were abused or exploited.

In late January, for example, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report that revealed examples of sponsors abusing the children. In one case, eight Guatemalan teenagers were released to labor traffickers who forced them to work grueling hours at an egg farm in Ohio for as little as $2 a day.

After getting a tip, authorities found the boys living in cramped, filthy trailers about an hour outside of Columbus. The boys, who had thought they were being reunited with relatives, instead found themselves working at Trillium Farms, a major egg producer, debeaking hens and cleaning cages nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week.

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More than 125,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been caught and detained along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2011. Many of them traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles under dangerous and very harsh conditions. The children have been held in federal facilities for periods ranging from an average of 72 days in 2011 to 34 days in 2015. Once the children are released to sponsors, the refugee resettlement office has no full-proof system for tracking their whereabouts, according to the GAO.

While children who were victimized by traffickers are entitled to receive mental health treatment, only 19 percent of children released by the agency to sponsors received that treatment in 2014, according to the GAO.