Nearly half of all illegal immigrant children don’t show up for their deportation hearings, federal officials testified to Congress on Wednesday, underscoring just how easy it is for those surging across the border right now to disappear into the shadows.
The number could be even higher for the current surge of unaccompanied children flooding across the border, who are often released to illegal immigrant parents who have no incentive to bring their children to immigration courts.
And federal authorities specifically refuse to ask the legal status of the parents or relatives who come to claim the children, officials acknowledged.
“We do not verify the immigration status of the individual,” said Mark H. Greenberg, acting assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, adding that it’s department policy not to ask that question.
Those who claim the children are required to promise to bring them back for deportation proceedings — the key enforcement provision that President Obama says will stop the surge of children.
But administration officials signaled Wednesday that they often fall short.
The officials couldn’t even agree on what percentage do show up.
A top official from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said he’d heard one figure that just 10 percent showed up for their deportation hearings, while Juan P. Osuna, director of the Executive Office of Immigration Review at the Justice Department, said 46 percent don’t show up — but that figure was for all children, not specifically the unaccompanied minors.
“You don’t even know what percentage don’t show up?” an incredulous Sen. John McCain told Mr. Winkowski.
The Obama administration has promised numbers for several weeks but said they don’t have them broken down by the unaccompanied minors.
Federal officials are trying to get a handle on the surge of children, but have so far struggled to find clear solutions.
The Justice Department has said it will try to surge judges to the border to process the cases involving the children — though officials said that will take away from working on other cases in the interior of the U.S., which means other deportations may slow.
Still, Mr. Winkowski said they’ve seen some early successes by opening more detention facilities to hold families who have come across the border, many of whom used to simply be released on the hope they would return.
“We’re already seeing people saying I didn’t realize I was going to detention, I thought I was going to be released,” Mr. Winkowski said.