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Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Sent to Live with Undocumented Adults Who May Be in US Illegally

First Posted: Apr 21, 2016 10:32 AM EDT
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Unaccompanied migrant children coming into the United States are being housed with adults who may be here without legal authorization, according to documents retrieved by the Associated Press.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data shows eight of every 10 children seeking refuge between February 2014 and September 2015 -- primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras -- were placed with family or guardians vulnerable to deportation.

Six percent went to sponsors with temporary protection status (TPS), short-term legal status granted to immigrants escaping civil wars, natural disasters or other transitory situations. TPS lets an undocumented individual work here legally, but does not let them petition for their child's residency.

Of an estimated 71,000 children, just four percent were sponsored by American citizens.

Background Checks for Sponsors

HHS and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security struggled with the massive influx of undocumented Latino children that arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border two years ago, some 47,000 of which were apprehended.

Then, as it is now, children were sent to oft-times overcrowded temporary shelters until Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) caseworkers found adequate sponsors. Parents are always the first choice, followed by aunts, uncles, siblings, and any other close relatives, regardless of immigration status.

Potential sponsors must agree to ensure the child's safety ahead of impending immigration hearings. They provide proof of identity and, in some cases, open their home up to ORR inspections.

An HHS statement report March 29 defines sponsors as adults who "provide for the child's physical and mental well-being and have not engaged in any activity that would indicate a potential risk to the child." At least two lawmakers have taken issue with the last point.

Divide Across Party Lines

Last December, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, accused the Obama administration of being lax on background checks, in some cases allowing undocumented children into the homes of drug dealers and child molesters.

"Apparently, ORR has struggled to ensure that (Unaccompanied Alien Children) are not placed with criminals since 2013, when it issued an alert warning of three 'fraudulent sponsors' with addresses in Colorado, Iowa, and Minnesota seeking to claim unrelated unaccompanied minors," read a letter authored by the senators.

They added, "It seems little corrective actions has been taken, and many are still released into criminal hands."

Democrats and Republicans see the HHS data in different lights.

Left-leaning politicians say a sponsor's status is not an issue if they care for the child. Conservatives, like Virginia Sen. and U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte, sympathizes with Grassley's concerns. Goodlatte questions whether relatives have illicit intentions.

"Since the president refuses to enforce our immigration laws, unlawful immigrants in the United States consistently pay criminal organizations along the border thousands of dollars to smuggle their family members into the United States," Goodlatte said in a statement to the AP.

A state-by-state table of unaccompanied children released to sponsors found HHS housed 22,798 children in a four-month span beginning last September. A total of 27,520 were released in the 12 months beforehand.

"HHS is engaged with state officials to address concerns they may have about the care or impact of unaccompanied children in these states, while making sure the children are treated humanely and consistent with the law as they go through immigration court proceedings," the report read.

The HHS report added that children have "histories of abuse or may be seeking safety from threats of violence. They may have been trafficked or smuggled."

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