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.
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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.
Mr. Wolfe did release to The Times the latest numbers showing that HHS has received 53,324 unaccompanied minors from the Department of Homeland Security and has released 48,805 of them.
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.
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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.
House Republicans are pushing to change the law as part of a $659 million emergency spending bill to address the border crisis for the next two months. A Senate bill contains more money to house and transport the children well into the next fiscal year but wouldn’t change the law to speed up deportations.
Mr. McCain said the information blackout will “absolutely” discourage Republicans from voting for anything more than a stopgap spending to keep the program running through Congress’ summer recess.
The administration also has stonewalled questions from Congress about how the program is run, including how many of the children have received asylum status that will allow them to remain in the U.S. or how many have been released to relatives or other guardians and asked to return for an immigration hearing at a later date.
Questions also have gone unanswered about the process for performing background checks on the children, many of whom are teens, and the adults who claim to be their relatives or guardians.
Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Henry Cuellar, both of Texas, sent HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell a letter July 18 with six questions about the policies for screening adults to whom children are released and tracking of the children after release.
“Does HHS conduct criminal background checks and national security checks on guardians prior to releasing unaccompanied alien children to their custody?” they asked in one of the questions posed in the letter.
The department has yet to respond, according to Mr. Cornyn’s office.