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Murray and DeLauro Warn Secretary Azar Against Policies Harmful to Children in Administration’s Care: “We Are Watching”

April 24, 2020
Press Release

(Washington, D.C.) – (April 24, 2020) Yesterday, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar expressing serious concern regarding reports the Office of Refugee Resettlement is considering new aggressive immigration policies and calling on him to ensure ORR remains focused first and foremost on the wellbeing of the children in its care.

“We write with great concern regarding reports the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is considering implementing aggressive immigration policies that are not in the best interests of the children in its care.  Further, we strongly oppose the Trump Administration using the cover of the global COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to undermine protections for children and enact President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda.  The actions of the Administration during this global pandemic should be guided be public health expertise and rooted in humanity and understanding—not opportunistic cruelty.  We call on you, as Secretary, to ensure the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) upholds the letter and the spirit of the laws that protect children and that ORR’s top priority remains children’s wellbeing,” wrote the Members.

According to recent reporting, ORR is considering several steps that would extend the amount of time children spend in border control custody, and make it harder for them to be placed with potential sponsors. The Members made clear such policies would run counter to ORR’s mission and likely violate the laws and policies that govern the operation of the unaccompanied alien children (UAC) program.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for the Trump Administration again to consider adopting policies that appear cruelly designed to keep children from their parents and guardians and would prioritize the pursuit of an anti-immigrant agenda over children’s safety and wellbeing. On a bipartisan basis, Congress rejected the Trump Administration’s cruel zero tolerance and family separation efforts.  HHS must not seek to use the cover of a global crisis to travel back down that dark path.  We are watching – and we will ensure every effort is made to maintain children’s health and safety.  We expect you to do the same.

 

Read the full letter HERE and below.

 

April 23, 2020

 

The Honorable Alex Azar

Secretary

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

200 Independence Avenue, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20201

 

Dear Secretary Azar:

 

We write with great concern regarding reports the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is considering implementing aggressive immigration policies that are not in the best interests of the children in its care.  Further, we strongly oppose the Trump Administration using the cover of the global COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to undermine protections for children and enact President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda.  The actions of the Administration during this global pandemic should be guided be public health expertise and rooted in humanity and understanding—not opportunistic cruelty.  We call on you, as Secretary, to ensure the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) upholds the letter and the spirit of the laws that protect children and that ORR’s top priority remains children’s wellbeing.

 

According to recent reporting, ORR is “seeking to delay placing migrant children in shelters operated by the health department, which would instead leave those children in the custody of the border patrol for an extended length of time.” The office is also reportedly exploring policies that would prohibit children from being placed with sponsors who are undocumented immigrants.  Finally, ORR is examining whether to fingerprint all adults in the homes of potential sponsors. These policies are all the more concerning in the context of reports that Jonathan Hayes, ORR Director from February 2019 to March 2020, was removed from his position because he “valued keeping families together."

These measures not only will undermine ORR’s mission of ensuring a safe environment, while finding appropriate placements for children, but they likely violate the laws and policies that govern the operation of the unaccompanied alien children (UAC) program.  The 1997 Flores settlement agreement and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 dictate the conditions for treatment of UACs in the United States. These mechanisms mandate that, once a child is deemed a UAC, they must be moved out of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and into ORR custody within 72 hours.  The laws also emphasize release to sponsors as one of the core missions of the UAC program and place numerous conditions on the sponsor identification process to ensure the child and sponsor’s safety – not immigration status – are central to the sponsorship determination.  In the last two years, ORR additionally has issued operational directives that restrict the use of fingerprinting as part of sponsor background checks. Directives issued in December 2018 and March 2019 significantly narrowed the circumstances under which potential sponsors and members of their household are required to undergo fingerprint background checks.

Moreover, Congress required no changes could be made to the December 2018 and March 2019 operational directives, including the existing fingerprinting policy, unless the Secretary determines such changes are necessary to prevent unaccompanied alien children from being placed in danger.  The Secretary must provide written notifications of such determinations to both Congress and the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services. You have not provided Congress with any such justification, nor is it likely the reported policy changes being considered by ORR leadership could be justified as necessary to prevent danger to the children in their care. 

It is absolutely unacceptable for the Trump Administration again to consider adopting policies that appear cruelly designed to keep children from their parents and guardians and would prioritize the pursuit of an anti-immigrant agenda over children’s safety and wellbeing. On a bipartisan basis, Congress rejected the Trump Administration’s cruel zero tolerance and family separation efforts.  HHS must not seek to use the cover of a global crisis to travel back down that dark path.  We are watching – and we will ensure every effort is made to maintain children’s health and safety.  We expect you to do the same.

 

Sincerely,

 

Senator Patty Murray                                                                                    

Representative Rosa DeLauro

 

cc:           The Honorable Lynn Johnson

                Assistant Secretary, Administration for Children and Families

                Department of Health and Human Services

 

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