WASHINGTON (CN) — House Democrats on Wednesday pushed for the shutdown of emergency facilities sheltering unaccompanied minors who crossed over the Mexico border, calling them for-profit prisons that warehouse children.
In a House Appropriations Committee hearing, lawmakers raised alarm that the centers operate outside state regulations for the care of children.
“These are loopholes that leave these unaccompanied children vulnerable to the incalculable harms that are preventable,” Congresswoman Donna Shalala, D-Fla., testified before the committee.
Health and Human Services officials told the committee the emergency influx facilities are critical to transition children out of border detention as they await placement in a sponsored guardian’s home.
But Democrats said HHS has been slow to unite children with sponsors, typically parents or close relatives.
Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the recent discharge of 1,000 children from the 3,200-bed center in Homestead, Florida, makes clear that overcrowding resulted from policy and not a lack of resources.
“If we could move these children this quickly, why were we not moving them all along? Why did we have chaos at the border and children not being able to be moved in the appropriate period?” DeLauro said.
Representative Mark Pocan, D-Wis., also raised the issue of the recent relocation.
“This is a very profitable venture with very little incentive to transfer people,” Pocan said. “But all the sudden in a couple weeks you transferred 1,400 people. So some fire got put under the system.”
Democrats also raised issue with an interagency agreement requiring HHS share information on potential sponsors with the Department of Homeland Security.
DeLauro said the number of sponsors who backed out of HHS processing increased six-fold after the agreement’s implementation. She looked to Jonathan Hayes, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, to call for its termination.
Hayes declined to answer, instead assuring the committee HHS does not share a sponsor’s immigration status with DHS.
“You direct this operation, you should know whether or not you want to keep this in place,” DeLauro said.
Republicans repeatedly said an immigration surge has overwhelmed the agency and called for more funding to increase bed space.
“[It] has stressed a system never designed to handle the current volume of children,” said ranking member Tom Cole, R.-Okla. “HHS cannot move minors into beds they don’t have.”
Stressing that permanent facilities require approval from state authorities, Hayes said obtaining state licenses can take months and is challenged by both sides of the aisle.
“Some governors don’t want illegal immigrants in their states,” Hayes said. “Some from the left that don’t want children detained or locked up even in a 100-bed, permanent licensed shelter.”
Despite obstacles, Hayes assured the committee he anticipates the agency will have 20,000 bed spaces in permanent state-licensed shelters by the end of 2020.
But Democrats buckled down, continuing to call for a shift in focus from boosting shelter capacity to reuniting children with their families.
“If ORR can’t get these children to sponsors within a fair, compassionate timeline, they need to tell us why. But more importantly they need to tell us precisely what resources they need,” Shalala said.
Members of Congress toured the Homestead facility last week but reported starkly different conditions in Wednesday’s hearing.
Testifying before the committee, Representative Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said he saw children in comfortable settings — given everything from psychological check-ups to pizza parties.
“I couldn’t help but wonder if we had visited facilities on different planets, the wording was so different,” Burgess said. “Members of Congress cannot make such accusations and then demand immediate and unannounced access to the facilities.”
But Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., also testifying, said the “red carpet was clearly rolled out” for the congressional delegation. California Democrat Barbara Lee, a member of the committee, said the children wearing lanyards with barcodes were treated as borderline criminals.
“That’s not the message we want to send to these children who are traumatized and hopefully will be living with their sponsors soon,” Lee said.