WASHINGTON, D.C., March 27, 2023 — U.S. Senator Katie Britt (R-Ala.) last Wednesday participated in the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee for Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies hearing regarding President Biden’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Senator Britt questioned HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about the Administration’s reckless policies regarding the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children, including field guidance that waived some background check requirements when placing vulnerable minors in sponsor homes.
The United States is experiencing a surge of unaccompanied minors at the southern border. More than 330,000 unaccompanied minors have already been encountered at the border since President Biden took office in January 2021. Under the law, most unaccompanied minors are referred to the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program within the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Administration for Children and Families of HHS in order to be resettled with a sponsor in the U.S. while awaiting their removal proceedings in immigration court at a future date, often several years into the future. Sponsors are supposed to be capable of providing for the physical and mental well-being of unaccompanied minors.
Due to the ongoing border crisis and overcrowding at HHS shelter facilities, the Biden Administration has taken a number of problematic steps in order to help speed up the process of releasing unaccompanied minors to sponsors. One of these irresponsible actions was the Office of Refugee Resettlement field guidance introduced on March 31, 2021, stating HHS would no longer require background checks for adult household members and alternate adult caregivers within certain categories of sponsors.
The Biden Administration also rescinded a Trump-era memorandum of agreement between HHS and the Department of Homeland Security under which information regarding potential sponsors of unaccompanied minors, as well as all adult members of the sponsor’s household, was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further background review and screening.
“[T]he UAC Program is plagued by deficiencies and poor management which, combined with this Administration’s reckless and irresponsible policies, encourage illegal immigration, and, I believe, has put the lives of children and their well-being at risk,” said Senator Britt in Wednesday’s hearing.
Many issues within the UAC Program were brought to light for a wide audience when the New York Times published a piece on February 25 that detailed how many unaccompanied minors have wound up in exploitative and illegal labor situations after arriving in the United States. Among other deficiencies, the piece noted issues with HHS’ vetting policies and practices.
“We’re spending a lot of money on a program that just isn’t working very well,” Senator Britt remarked. “I believe it isn’t a lack of funding, it is departmental policy and management failures that are our problem.”
HHS’ FY24 budget request includes $5.5 billion in baseline funding for the UAC Program, along with a request for a $2.8 billion contingency fund to help address unaccompanied minors and other refugee issues throughout the next fiscal year.
“On March 31, 2021, HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement issued field guidance that waived background check requirements for adult household members and alternate adult caregivers identified in a sponsor care plan submitted by Category 2 sponsors,” Senator Britt stated. “As you know, Category 2 sponsors include certain relatives of a child, other than a parent. So, the department put in place a policy that allowed a waiver of background checks for other adults in the household of those relatives. That strikes me as deeply irresponsible.”
Senator Britt then asked Secretary Becerra, “In light of recent events, can you tell me if the March 31, 2021, field guidance is still in effect?”
After two-and-a-half minutes of the witness not answering the question, Senator Britt then asked Secretary Becerra the question again.
“I’ll get back to you on the field guidance,” Secretary Becerra responded.
“If it is not a parent that you are placing [an accompanied child] with, do you do a background check of the other individuals in that home?” Senator Britt queried.
“It will depend [on the sponsor],” Secretary Becerra admitted.
“These children – it’s a passion for me as a momma of two school-aged children, that we’re not putting them in harm’s way,” Senator Britt concluded.
Video of the exchange can be viewed here.
Senator Britt is the ranking member of the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.