The Obama administration is concealing key details about its response to the surge of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the southern border, including where the unaccompanied minors are being sheltered and the circumstances under which some are set free inside the U.S.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill say the lack of information has handicapped their push to pass legislation to gain a handle on the surge — a debate taking place this week in both chambers.
“We’re getting almost no information, and there is all kinds of conflicting information,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who for months has been hounding the administration for answers about where unaccompanied minors, who crossed the border without their parents, are detained and released.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which is bound by law to house and care for unaccompanied children and teens from Central America, rebuffed repeated inquires from The Washington Times about the location of shelters where many of the children are detained.
“We do not identify the approximately 100 regular/permanent Unaccompanied Alien Children program shelters for the safety and security of minors and staff at the facilities,” Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of communication for HHS' Administration for Children and Families, said in an email.
Mr. Wolfe refused to say what the perceived danger is or whether state and local government officials were notified of permanent shelters located in their jurisdictions. A number of governors and local officials have said they only have found out from leaks and press reports.
The only sites that Mr. Wolfe would identify were the three temporary shelters set up on military bases — Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Naval Base Ventura County in Southern California and Fort Sill in Oklahoma, all of which restrict the general public’s access.
There are currently 6,994 minors in the UAC program, he said, which includes youths taken into custody last year that have not been placed with families.
However, where the released children went and where the minors still in custody are being detained remain unanswered questions.
The locations of the permanent shelters have been kept secret since the agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement began the UAC program, said Mr. Wolfe.
The secrecy didn’t raise eyebrows until the tsunami of unaccompanied children hit the U.S. this year, and the Obama administration began scrambling to find more shelter facilities, encountering fierce community opposition at nearly every proposed site.
Outcry from residents and local elected officials forced the administration to pull back from plans to set up temporary shelters in communities such as Baltimore, Maryland; Lynn, Massachusetts; Lawrenceville, Virginia; Hazleton, Pennsylvania and Murrieta, California.
The administration has since expanded the use of military bases for temporary shelters, including plans under consideration to send some of the children to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. On the bases, the Pentagon provides the facilities and HHS runs the shelters.
A 2008 law required HHS to take custody of most illegal immigrant children and attempt to reunite them with relatives inside the U.S. The law was intended to protect children from human trafficking, but critics say it became a way for children to gain a foothold in the country and now serves as an incentive for children to try to jump the border.