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Senate Republicans: ORR’s rule change passes buck on ‘protecting vulnerable children’

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Thirty-eight Republican U.S. Senators have called on the Office of Refugee Resettlement to drop its proposed rule change that attempts to codify what they argue are failed policies regarding the care of unaccompanied minors brought to the U.S. border and put under their care.

ORR is housed within the Office of the Administration for Children & Families within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. According to a federal law passed in 2003, “When a child who is not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian is apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of” the ORR. Federal law requires ORR to provide these children with food, shelter, and medical care and release them “to safe settings with sponsors (usually family members), while they await immigration proceedings.”

The senators, led by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told the heads of ACF and ORR to “overhaul its harmful and deficient policies governing the agency’s treatment of unaccompanied alien children in the United States” after multiple federal and state investigations identified serious deficiencies of ORR oversight.

They include allegations of sexual abuse of children in HHS/ORR-contracted facilities and losing track of UACs once they are in the U.S. Several investigative reports identified over 100,000 children ORR can’t account for within a certain timeframe, meaning the number is potentially higher.

A Florida grand jury report found the ORR was “facilitating the forced migration, sale, and abuse of foreign children. This process exposes children to horrifying health conditions, constant criminal threat, labor and sex trafficking, robbery, rape and other experiences not done justice by mere words.”

ORR’s proposed rule change would codify its failed policies that led to or enabled the alleged abuse, the senators and numerous groups argue. The proposed rule change received over 73,000 comments during a comment period that ended December 4.

HHS states the rule change is “consistent with its statutory duties, for the benefit of unaccompanied children and to enhance public transparency as to the policies governing the operation of the UC Program.”

But the rule change does the exact opposite, the senators argue, stating that it codifies placing UACs with “unvetted, potentially criminal sponsors.” It also prevents whistleblowers from reporting abuses in the program to Congress, in violation of federal law protecting whistleblowers.

The senators wrote to the heads of ACF and ORR stating, “This Proposed Rule ignores nearly seven years of oversight conducted by Congress and the Office of Inspector General and reveals chronic foot-dragging—if not total reluctance—when it comes to protecting vulnerable children. It provides ample protections to government bureaucrats at the expense of children.”

“ORR does not even consider a sponsor’s criminal record, current illegal drug use, history of abuse or neglect, or other child welfare concerns’ necessarily disqualifying to potential sponsorship,” under current policies, the senators point out. “In effect, ORR accepts a sponsor’s representations almost entirely on face value.”

“ORR’s Proposed Rule abdicates the agency’s responsibility for protecting the vulnerable children in its custody from harmful behavior by poorly vetted, potential criminals” the senators argue. Over this same time period, ORR received $5.5 billion in taxpayer funds in fiscal 2022.

When debating continuing funding for ORR, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, introduced an amendment to strip ORR’s director of her salary, saying, “she doesn’t deserve a single taxpayer dollar.” The amendment failed because of 46 Republicans who voted with Democrats to kill it.

The senators said ORR’s proposed rule “is wholly unworkable and ORR should discard it and its current practices. If not, Congress will have no choice but to introduce a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act.”

The greatest number of UACs have been sent to sponsors in the most populous states of Texas, California and Florida, including to 22 counties in Texas, 21 counties in California, and 29 counties in Florida.

From March 2003 to July 2022, ORR says it has cared for more than 409,550 children. The overwhelming majority arriving are males by a roughly 70-30 split, according to ORR data.

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