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Factcheck: Feds solicited services for wave of migrant kids

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Factcheck: Feds solicited services for wave of migrant kids

  • Two young girls sit in their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014.
    AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, PoolTwo young girls sit in their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on June 18, 2014.

Q: Did the Obama administration advertise in January to transport 65,000 foreign children apprehended at the border? Did it expect a surge of illegal immigration?

A: Yes. There's been a sharp increase in unaccompanied children from Central America since FY 2012, and the U.S. projected a bigger increase this year.

Full question

Is it true that the US government advertised for "escort services for unaccompanied alien children" back in January, 2014. And, if so, how did they know there would be this influx of children from Guatemala? (Or, some other country?)

Full answer

The recent wave of publicity concerning the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America being apprehended at the southwest border has unleashed a flood of emails from readers. Many of the emails refer, directly or indirectly, to a request for information submitted Jan. 29 by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the Federal Business Opportunities website titled "Escort Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children."

Some have asked if Homeland Security is paying to bring foreign children across the board illegally, based on some conservative websites that misinterpreted the request for information (RFI). Infowars, for example, claimed that the Obama administration is using "taxpayer money to escort illegal minors into the United States."

Other readers, such as the one above, asked if the Obama administration placed the advertisement "back in January," and wonder how the administration knew months ago that there would be a crisis at the border.

First of all, ICE did not solicit bids for vendors to bring children across the border, as Infowars claimed on its website. The request for information was referring to children who illegally crossed the border and were apprehended by Border Patrol agents. The private escorts would transfer "approximately 65,000″ unaccompanied foreign children from Border Patrol facilities to Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters.

The request for information says:

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has a continuing and mission critical responsibility for accepting custody of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) from U.S. Border Patrol and other Federal agencies and transporting these juveniles to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters located throughout the continental United States.

HHS is required by law to take custody and provide care for unaccompanied foreign children who illegally enter the United States from countries that do not border the United States. The law — known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 — allows for the expedited deportation of most child migrants from Mexico and Canada when they are apprehended at the border. But there is a complex resettlement process for other children.

These children — who are mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — are first held at Border Patrol facilities for a maximum of 72 hours for screening. After that, the DHS must hand them over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for placement under its Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. Options may include foster care, living with a relative in the United States (if available), or deportation back to the child's home country.

The law was designed to prevent human trafficking and reduce the risk of abduction and exploitation. The extra scrutiny and time given to these children is to ensure their safe and accurate repatriation.

Anticipating the surge

ICE posted its RFI for "escort services" on Jan. 29. The deadline for submissions was Feb. 19. We could not locate a Request for Proposal (RFP) to hire an escort service, so we don't know the current status of the request.

Many readers expressed surprise at the scope and timing of the January request — one reader put JANUARY in all caps to underscore the point — since the issue didn't capture the public's attention until relatively recently. President Obama himself didn't speak to the issue until delivering remarks in the Rose Garden on June 30, when he called the situation "an actual humanitarian crisis" and urged Congress to work with the administration to address it.

"In recent weeks, we've seen a surge of unaccompanied children arrive at the border, brought here and to other countries by smugglers and traffickers," Obama said.

But the number of unaccompanied children — specifically from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — has been rising steadily since fiscal year 2012,  as we wrote in a June 27 article, and the administration late last year projected a significant spike for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2014.

In fiscal year 2012, the administration was initially caught off guard by a surge of illegal border crossings by children. In its FY2012 report to Congress, HHS said there was "a rapid, unanticipated, and unprecedented increase in UAC referrals from DHS." In a separate report on its activity in FY2012, the Office of Refugee Resettlement said it served "a total of 13,625 children for the year — more than double FY2011, and far exceeding the 8,200 projected."

Referrals nearly doubled again in FY2013. ORR's annual report for FY2013 said the UAC program "continued to experience increasing referrals." The report said, "There were 24,668 UAC placed in care, as compared to 13,625 UAC in FY12. The annual average prior to the influx was 6,700 UAC."

By the end of fiscal year 2013, the administration projected the number of unaccompanied children referred to the ORR for placement would more than double to 60,000.

In a November 2013 report titled "Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States," the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said DHS, HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement anticipated 60,000 unaccompanied children in fiscal year 2014 — only 5,000 less than the 65,000 figure used in the administration's January request for information.

Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 2013: Whereas the number of children apprehended averaged 6,800 between federal fiscal years (FY) (October 1-September 30) 2004 and 2011, the total jumped to over 13,000 children in FY2012 and over 24,000 children in FY 2013. HHS/ORR, as well as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimate that more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors could enter the United States during 2014.

HHS confirmed that figure in a budget document submitted to Congress that said "as of January 2014, the FY 2014 estimate for UAC is approximately 60,000."

Department of Health and Human Services: From FY 2005 through FY 2011, the UAC program served between 7,000 to 8,000 children annually with an average length of stay in the program of 75 days. In FY 2012, however, the number of children entering the program began to increase, and by the end of the fiscal year, ORR served approximately 14,000 UAC. In FY 2013, the number of UAC served was almost 25,000, and as of January 2014, the FY 2014 estimate for UAC is approximately 60,000. The majority of children are fleeing from violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador with the goal of reuniting with parents or other family members already living in the United States.

By late January, DHS' Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued its request for information to transport "approximately 65,000″ unaccompanied children to HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement. That would represent an 813 percent increase from fiscal year 2011, when there were about 7,120 children placed in ORR's care, according to the office's FY2011 report to Congress.

The surge in unaccompanied children from Central America is largely due to increased violent crime in the "northern triangle" (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). A July 3 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says 48 percent of apprehended children "said they had experienced serious harm or had been threatened by organized criminal groups or state actors, and more than 20 percent had been subject to domestic abuse." Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world.

The CRS report also cites economic stagnation and poverty as catalysts. El Salvador, for example, has the lowest GDP growth rate in Central America. Republicans, however, have blamed the crisis on Obama's immigration policies, specifically the president's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.

In congressional testimony on July 10, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his department is "preparing for a scenario in which the number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border could reach up to 90,000 by the end of fiscal year 2014." But, as HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said at the same hearing, that includes Mexicans and the "vast majority" of those children are returned to their country without being placed in HHS's care. As we noted earlier, the law allows for the expedited deportation of children from Mexico and Canada — although there are exceptions for those children who express a fear of torture in their home country.

As of June 30, Customs and Border Patrol had apprehended 57,525 unaccompanied children in the first nine months of this fiscal year. That includes 43,933 from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — which is 76 percent of the total. CBP apprehended 12,614 from Mexico, most of whom would be deported without having to be transported to a resettlement shelter.

At the July 10 hearing, which was held by the Senate Appropriations Committee to discuss the president's request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the crisis, Burwell said HHS has "enough money" in the current fiscal year to handle 54,000 unaccompanied children placed in its care.

It remains to be seen if the 65,000 figure cited in the January RFI for "escort services" proves to be an accurate projection. But certainly the administration anticipated a surge of unaccompanied children at the border.

– Lauren Shapiro and Eugene Kiely


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