The Biden administration says it is making sure pregnant teens crossing the southern border as part of an illegal surge are placed in states where they can obtain legal abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling this summer.
Even though bed space for minors is at a premium, the administration has revealed in court documents that it is reserving some to ensure pregnant girls have landing spots in licensed facilities in abortion-friendly states, even if it means others end up in unlicensed facilities.
Minors who come to the border without parents are called unaccompanied alien children, or UACs. Under federal law and court rulings, most of them must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services for care while they await sponsors to pick them up.
“Pregnant children are considered particularly vulnerable children under the [Emergency Intake Sites] settlement agreement, and thus settlement considerations, along with recent actions by state governments and the U.S. Supreme Court, have further influenced ORR’s decision-making so that it can keep appropriate licensed placements open and available for a pregnant child who may need access to medical care,” the administration told U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee in court filings last week. HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) oversees those children.
The focus on abortion is not sitting well with Republicans.
“In a new low, even for the most pro-abortion president in U.S. history, President Biden apparently only wants pregnant minors who illegally cross our southern border to be placed in states where they can get an abortion,” said Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican. “His priority seems to be increasing abortions in America, rather than stopping illegal immigration or protecting the lives of children.
“These unaccompanied kids should be safely and quickly reunited with family in their home country, not shipped to states where they can obtain an abortion, which is potentially a violation of the Hyde amendment that prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion,” Mr. Lankford told The Washington Times in a statement.
In fiscal 2022, Customs and Border Protection officers and agents nabbed more than 116,000 UACs through June. July numbers have yet to be released.
As of Wednesday, ORR had 11,156 of them in its facilities. Based on historical data, about a third of those are likely to be girls.
HHS did not say how many were pregnant or how many of them indicated they wanted abortions.
Peter Schey, the attorney for the children in a class-action lawsuit in which the administration revealed its abortion focus, said the number of pregnant teens “is minuscule.”
Although he supports making sure the girls have access to abortion, he said, it is a poor excuse for leaving other children in unlicensed facilities.
“It would be far more humane and less costly for ORR to hire additional case managers to work on promptly releasing minors to their families than paying the exorbitant costs associated with detaining thousands of minors in so-called emergency influx centers,” Mr. Schey told The Times.
Those influx centers aren’t supposed to be used except in emergencies because the care they deliver is not as good as in licensed facilities. Disease, assault and poor medical care have been reported at the emergency facilities.
Mr. Schey has been battling the administration about leaving beds in licensed facilities empty while using unlicensed facilities.
In its court filings, HHS said it uses a “complicated decision-making process” to place UACs. Part of that is abortion contingency planning, HHS revealed.
That focus struck former officials as odd.
“It would seem that the Biden administration is prioritizing abortion politics over the humanitarian portion of its immigration mission. This is consistent with the fact that they prioritize politics over everything,” said Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting homeland security deputy secretary in the Trump administration.
The Times made repeated requests to HHS for data on the number of pregnant teens and abortion requests within the UAC population, but the department didn’t answer those inquiries.
The department did issue a statement to The Times saying it is “monitoring any impact the Supreme Court decision may have on its programs.”
In a 6-3 ruling in late June, the justices overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that created a national constitutional right to abortion. Without Roe, the issue returned to the states. A number of those states enacted laws limiting access to abortion.
Texas, which now effectively bars abortion, has long been a major location of UAC facilities. Arizona, where a federal judge has blocked a potential ban, and Florida, which has a ban on abortions after 15 weeks, have also been big players in the UAC shelter business.
The number of abortions among migrant teens has likely soared under the Biden administration simply because the overall number of arrivals is higher.
The Biden team in January 2021 exempted UACs from the Title 42 pandemic policy, which allowed most illegal immigrants to be pushed back across the border.
The number of UACs encountered by border authorities was 5,882 that January. In the previous seven months, it averaged fewer than 4,000.
By March 2021, just two months into the Biden experiment, UAC arrivals neared 19,000. In the 15 months since, the number has averaged more than 14,000 a month.
The Trump administration took a different approach to abortion access for UACs. It added an extra layer of review and discouraged teens in custody from seeking to exercise that option.
That sparked a nasty legal fight. Abortion rights advocates said the children had a constitutional right to abortion once in the U.S. Trump administration defenders countered that the U.S. was in danger of becoming a destination for “abortion tourism,” with juveniles jumping the border to have the procedure when it might be illegal back home.
A federal district judge sided with the abortion rights advocates. Her ruling did not force girls to return to countries without access to abortion.
During the case, the government revealed some data about how common abortion was.
In fiscal year 2017, the government recorded nabbing 41,546 UACs. Of those, 420 pregnant teens ended up in HHS custody.
Eighteen requested abortions, and 11 had the procedure while in custody. Another five rescinded their requests, and two were turned over to sponsors before a final decision was made.