Congressman Griffith's Weekly E-Newsletter 7.28.23
Office of Refugee Resettlement
In a March hearing, I asked U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra to come before my Oversight and Investigations (O&I) Subcommittee to discuss the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). I recently chaired said hearing.
ORR, an agency within HHS, is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied children who cross our borders.
During my opening statement, I thanked him for testifying and said even though he and I don’t agree on the Biden policies that brought these children to our border, once we have taken on the responsibility for them, we must properly care for them.
During the Biden Administration, ORR has faced an unprecedented surge in the number of unaccompanied minors referred to its custody.
For reference, from fiscal years (FY) 2018 through 2020, ORR averaged around 44,500 referrals per year. As of March 31, 2023, the agency had received almost 60,000 referrals in FY2023. This puts the agency on pace for over 120,000 referrals for the third year in a row.
Evidence from whistleblowers, Inspector General reports, and news reports demonstrate a failure by ORR to competently manage the surge. This surge has led to increased exploitation and trafficking of unaccompanied minors.
During the questioning portion of the hearing, I asked Secretary Becerra about a few specific concerns I have with ORR.
First were comments that Secretary Becerra himself made. In a leaked audio recording, the Secretary was heard saying, in reference to the processing of unaccompanied minors:
“If Henry Ford had seen this in his plants, he would have never become famous and rich. This is not the way you do an assembly line.”
These comments are alarming! In April, the New York Times reported that instead of taking the necessary time and effort to properly vet the people the children were being placed with, ORR fast tracked children through their system. This has led to reports of children being forced to illegally work in dangerous and inappropriate jobs instead of being enrolled in school.
ORR does not even notify the local school system that the children have been placed in their jurisdiction.
While Secretary Becerra’s comments seem to suggest that moving children out of ORR facilities quickly is more important than protecting them, the Secretary claimed that was not the case and his comments were more about overall ORR efficiency.
I also questioned the Secretary about ORR’s unacceptable vetting practices of family members and sponsors.
In regard to establishing claimed familial relationships between an adult and an unaccompanied minor, I asked if the agency does DNA testing. Secretary Becerra said that the agency verifies the identity of the family member mainly through documents, like birth certificates.
This is not enough. Documents like birth certificates or passports can be forged!
DNA testing is the only way to be completely sure there actually is a family connection.*
Additionally, I questioned Secretary Becerra about ORR continuing to waive background checks not only for people claiming to be family members, but also for unrelated adults who live in the house where a child is being placed – practices that were approved by the Secretary in ORR Field Guidance 10 and 11.
Further, ORR does not generally conduct FBI background checks of sponsors.
The Secretary’s responses to my questions about ORR’s vetting process were far from satisfactory. I was hoping to hear that ORR would start doing FBI background checks on sponsors and DNA tests on those claiming to be family. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
These issues with ORR have been ongoing since the start of the Biden Administration.
In 2021, I visited the Emergency Intake operation at Fort Bliss, Texas, and was shocked by what I learned. There was no collaboration with law enforcement for background checks when vetting sponsors and the “background check” or “public records check” they were using were merely widely available internet search engines.
In my opening, I placed into the record a report by a statewide grand jury in Florida, charged with investigating ORR. It said:
“If any resident of Florida exposed U.S. born children to this process, they would be justifiably arrested for child neglect or worse. We do not think children should be less-protected simply because they were born outside our borders and brought here by a government agency.”
I agree. In my view, as a former domestic relations attorney in Virginia, ORR’s practices and actions are tantamount to child neglect. A child’s legal status is irrelevant, ORR must do better.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.
*Claims of adoptive relationships are rare amongst unaccompanied minors at the border.