Watchdog: U.S. Often Didn’t Screen Workers at Emergency Migrant Centers for Children

The federal Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has frequently failed to perform required background checks on emergency holding center workers for migrant children who crossed the southern U.S. border with Mexico alone during the 2021 surge, according to the agency’s internal watchdog. 

The report from the inspector general released on Thursday raised questions about how well-prepared authorities will be for the next emergency, especially with Covid pandemic-related asylum restrictions and Title 42 set to end in the coming week, expected to result in more arrivals. The report found that 200 workers didn’t have background checks for neglect or child support, and only 29 did, although 20 weren’t done in a timely manner.

Investigators found 174 didn’t have FBI fingerprint background checks while 55 did, with 25 not done in a timely manner. Checks against the Justice Department’s sex offender registry, which are not required as frequently, weren’t done on 42 workers and were completed on 36 workers, but 11 were not done in a timely manner. 

Criminal background checks using publicly available records were conducted more often but on fewer than half of new hires. Thursday, the federal Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog released survey responses and interviews from over 9,300 employees who found border flows of both legal travel and trade and illegal crossings are unsustainable without more staffing.

The department’s efforts to address the burgeoning workload with overtime and temporary transfers were determined to be insufficient. The workload, especially since 2019, has negatively impacted the health and morale of the law enforcement personnel, who feel overworked and unable to perform their primary law enforcement duties, wrote the Homeland Security inspector general. 

Health and Human Services review of unaccompanied children focused on 10 of 14 contracted emergency intake sites, including convention centers in Long Beach and San Diego, California, two military bases in Texas, and county fairgrounds near Los Angeles. It also included an overflow site run by the Carrizo Springs, Texas department that failed to perform the required checks.

HHS expanded bed holding capacity but was markedly unprepared for increased flows

HHS expanded the holding capacity of beds in the spring of 2021 to 13,500 but was markedly unprepared for increased flows that occurred shortly after President Biden assumed office, which forced authorities to ask local and military governments for help opening emergency shelters for up to six months. 

The HHS department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement must address the shortcomings we identified to ensure that similar issues do not recur during future influxes, concluded the report. 

Effective oversight of facility operations and clearly communicating background check requirements are critical to ensuring the safety of children. Under federal law, HHS assumes custody of children crossing the border alone, typically within 72 hours of arrest, and places them with family or other sponsors while their cases go through immigration courts. 

In the 2021 budget year, the department received over 12,000 children, compared with about 19,000 in the previous year, said Contreras. The Border Patrol held over 4,000 people once, primarily unaccompanied children, at a facility in Donna, Texas, designed to hold 250 people with Covid restrictions.  

Responding to the inspector general, Contreras wrote that HHS continues to search 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. 

U.S. authorities saw the highest number of crossings by unaccompanied children in March 2021, when almost 19,000 were taken into custody. According to the latest data, around 12,500 were taken into custody this past March.