Thousands of illegal immigrant children held by the federal government faced sexual abuse, usually at the hands of other illegal immigrant children, according to new statistics released Tuesday by a Democratic congressman.
Rep. Ted Deutch called the numbers “staggering” and demanded changes to the way Unaccompanied Alien Children are detained after they are caught sneaking across the border, and before they can be placed with sponsors.
The children are held in dorms run by the Health and Human Services Department that allow the children fairly free access — creating situations where they are able to abuse each other or, less frequently, to face abuse at the hands of shelter staff or other adults.
From October 2017 through July 2018, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the illegal immigrant children, said it recorded 1,261 allegations of sexual abuse. Of those, 349 were perpetrated by one child on another, 49 were allegations of shelter staff abusing a child and the rest were from folks — either children or adults — outside of the UAC program.
Just 412 allegations were reported to the Justice Department.
At least 1,000 reports of abuse were also recorded for every year from 2015 through 2017, the documents show.
Mr. Deutch, Florida Democrat, focused on the staff abuse, saying the numbers showed “an unsafe environment” at the government-run facilities. He said it averaged out to about one adult sexual abuse accusation per week.
The shelters are run on contract, with large charities usually operating the facilities under strict guidelines and supervision from HHS.
More than 150,000 UAC went through HHS’s care from 2015 to 2018.
Jonathan Hayes, acting director of ORR, bristled at Mr. Deutch’s accusations.
He said because of the way the federal government tracks data, some abuse accusations would in other contexts be considered sexual harassment, including name-calling or the use of explicit language.
“The vast majority of the allegations reported to ORR are ‘inappropriate sexual behaviors’ involving solely UACs, and not staff or any other adults,” he said. “Facilities can often resolve these allegations by, for example, counseling the minors about more appropriate behaviors.”
HHS also said every accusation is quickly investigated.
Detailed spreadsheets of HHS data released by Mr. Deutch show the results of some of those internal investigations.
In every case where a staff member was able to be identified and was an employee under government control or contract, he or she was suspended immediately.
In some cases, the employees were reinstated, but firing was the more usual course, according to the documents.
In a few cases, employees were allowed to return but not to work with UAC.
In one 2015 case, during the Obama administration, a UAC’s personal letters suggested an inappropriate relationship with a staffer at Heartland International Children’s Residential Center. The staffer was immediately terminated.
Sometimes the allegations against adults were determined to be malicious gossip spread by the children themselves, according to the data.
Mr. Deutch made his revelations during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Trump’ administration’s 2018 zero-tolerance border policy, which led to the separation of thousands of illegal immigrant children from their illegal immigrant parents.
Administration officials admitted the policy had hiccups, but said they’ve learned lessons and have managed to reunite most of the children who were separated.
Democrats aren’t so sure.
The House Oversight Committee on Tuesday voted to approve a subpoena for data on the separations.
The 25-11 vote was bipartisan, with several Republicans joining Democrats to demand detailed information about thousands of children who were taken from parents who were sent to jail last year.
Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings called the separations “government-sponsored child abuse,” and said the GOP-led House should have done more to pressure the administration over the issue last year.
Republicans, though, complained Mr. Cummings was rashly rushing to try to be the first Democrat to issue a subpoena to the Trump administration. Once issued, the subpoenas will be the first ones sent by the new Democratic majority.
The Judiciary Committee had approved a subpoena for former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, but the chairman never issued it.