WASHINGTON (CN) - Amid signs that the wave of unaccompanied children at the southern border will rival crisis levels of 2014, the Senate pressed administration officials Tuesday on their preparedness.
Testifying at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary committee, officials said they are better prepared than they were in 2014 to handle unaccompanied children arriving at the border, but a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office suggests the Department of Health and Human Services could do more.
"My most immediate concern would be making sure that the controls were in place to keep the monitoring and the checks on the grantees that are both taking care of the kids and helping select the sponsors," said Kay Brown, director of Education, Workforce and Income Security for the GAO.
The report found the HHS had not properly monitored the grantees who care for children in the department's custody, with some of the grantees lacking important information on their children.
Some of the facilities had not been visited for seven years when the GAO conducted its investigation, Brown said.
"Without on-site monitoring, ORR cannot know whether children are receiving required and needed services" Brown said, abbreviating the GAO's Office of Refugee Resettlement.
But Brown insisted the department has been receptive to GAO's recommendations and has already started taking action on some of the three recommendations the agency laid out in its report.
The GAO report comes one month after a Senate investigation found that the existing placement programs HHS has for unaccompanied minor allowed children to fall into the hands of human traffickers and abusers.
That report focused on a 2014 case in which human traffickers in Marion, Ohio, at took custody of at least six unaccompanied children whom they forced to work on egg farms 12 hours a day without pay.
In an ensuing hearing before the committee that undertook the investigation, administration officials largely dodged senators' questions and did little to assuage their concerns that the agency was not doing enough to protect children coming to the border alone.
Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families for the Department of Health and Human Services, testified at that hearing last month, but took a more cooperative tone Tuesday, laying out the ways in which the agency has strengthened its resettlement programs and prepared to handle more cases.
The department has tightened background-check requirements, increased home studies for unaccompanied minors ready to be placed in the care of a sponsor, pumped up post-release services, and implemented a mandatory, 30-day, safety-and-wellness check, as well as a hotline for minors to call with concerns about their treatment, Greenberg said.
Greenberg also confirmed Brown's claim that HHS has increased the number of permanent and temporary beds available to unaccompanied minors, but said he hopes that he will not to use them.
"Senator, I want to emphasize to you that our entire focus on the release process is wanted to ensure the safety and the wellbeing of the child," Greenberg told Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at the hearing.
But senators still raised questions about the agency, especially in light of the GAO and Senate investigations.
Grassley hit HHS for taking "shortcuts," and suggested caring for the unaccompanied minors is not a priority for the Obama administration. Questioning Greenberg at length about his agency's policies for releasing children to sponsors, Grassley called for the administration to step up its efforts to monitor them after they leave agency custody.
"This will require the administration to stop shirking its responsibility and monitor individuals after placement," Grassley said. "They need a plan, they need to learn from their mistakes, they need to ensure that minors are quickly and safely returned to their home country and they need to be held accountable."
Grassley and other Republicans on the committee were concerned about what happens when unaccompanied children skip out on their hearings before immigration judges, and blamed the wave of children at the border in part on the administration's unwillingness to round up those who miss their hearings.
"Nobody is looking for them," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Tuesday. "The system is not working. All you have to do is come into the country unlawfully, be released into the country and if you don't show up for court you're never looked for and aren't deported."
Thomas Homan, executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, lamented to Sessions that his agents who round up people who have broken the law are demonized just for doing their jobs.
"I think everybody deserves due process, but once that due process has been had and an order has been issued, then let's not vilify law-enforcement officers executing that order," Homan said. "That is their job. And that is the law. The law is the law. We need to stand by the law."
Democrats on the committee also focused on the immigration courts, but did not join the call for a crackdown on those who miss their hearings and increased deportations. They instead suggested requiring representation for the children in court.
"So it seems to me, and I've introduced legislation along these lines, representation for these kids is the right thing to do, the humane thing to do," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.
While partisanship took over large parts of the hearing, senators generally agreed the children crossing the border are often fleeing real danger and need to be either cared for or returned home in a responsible, safe way.
"We're a great nation, with a long history of protecting those who cannot protect themselves," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. "We've got to stand with these children, I don't want to see them used in political games."
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