The Department of Health and Human Services frequently failed to conduct required background checks on workers at emergency detention centers for migrant children who crossed the southern border of the United States without an adult during a surge in immigration in 2021, from agreement with the agency’s internal oversight body.
The inspector general’s report released Thursday raises questions about how better prepared authorities will be for the next emergency, particularly as asylum restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic are set to expire, which are expected to come. more migrants.
The report, based on sampling, found that 200 workers were not screened for possible history of child abuse or neglect, and only 29 were screened, though 20 were not done “in a timely manner.”
Investigators found that 174 did not have FBI fingerprint background checks and 55 did, but 25 of those were not done “in a timely manner.”
Checks against the Justice Department’s sex offender registry, which are required less frequently, were not done on 42 workers and on 36, although 11 were not done “in a timely manner.”
Criminal background checks based on public records were done more frequently, but on fewer than half of new hires.
Also Thursday, the internal oversight body of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released the results of interviews and surveys conducted with more than 9,300 employees, which revealed that border flows — both illegal crossings like trade and legal travel — are unsustainable without more staff. The agency’s efforts to address the increasing workload with temporary transfers were found to be insufficient.
The workload, particularly since 2019, “has had a negative impact on the health and morale of security personnel, who feel overworked and unable to perform their primary security duties,” reported the DHS Inspector General.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) review of unaccompanied minors focused on 10 of 14 “emergency intake centers,” including convention centers in San Diego and Long Beach, California, a county fairgrounds near Los Angeles and two Texas military bases.
Also included was an agency-run support center in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which also often failed to perform required checks.
HHS expanded nursing capacity to 13,500 beds in the first months of 2021, but was unprepared for the surge that came shortly after President Joe Biden took office, forcing authorities to call in the military for help. and local governments to open emergency shelters for up to six months.
The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement “must address the deficiencies we have identified to ensure that similar problems are not repeated in future flows” of migrants, the report concludes.
“Effective supervision of facility operations and clear communication of background check requirements are critical to ensuring the safety of children.”
HHS accepted the watchdog’s seven recommendations. January Contreras, assistant secretary for children and families, said the report covered “one of the most difficult periods” in its history of caring for migrant children, noting that the increase came in the midst of the pandemic.
Under federal law, children who cross the border unaccompanied by an adult are taken into custody by HHS—generally within 72 hours of their apprehension—and placed with relatives or other sponsors while their cases go through the immigration courts.
The department welcomed more than 122,000 children in fiscal year 2021, compared to 19,000 the year before, according to Contreras.
Border Patrol held some children for days, even weeks, in 2021, until HHS was ready to take custody.
Border Patrol once held more than 4,000 detainees, mostly unaccompanied children, at a Donna, Texas, facility designed to hold 250 people with COVID-19 restrictions.
In a response to the inspector general, Contreras wrote that HHS “continues to look for more efficient ways to reduce barriers to the timeliness of background check adjudication, has made progress, and is working in real time to improve its processes.”
In March 2021, US authorities recorded the highest number of migrant child crossings, with nearly 19,000 taken into custody. In March of this year—the latest publicly available data—some 12,500 were detained.
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