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Rep. Bass, Rep. Escobar & Sen. Harris in Demand Release of Detained Children Amid COVID-19 Crisis

April 22, 2020
Press Release
WASHINGTON-Today, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and 48 of their colleagues sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf demanding the release of detained children amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As the number of children in HHS custody infected with COVID-19 continues to increase, the lawmakers stressed the need to protect the health and safety of children in U.S. custody.

“There are currently nearly 2,400 children in Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) custody, including licensed shelters. According to public health experts, people in confined spaces ‘are at special risk of infection, given their living situations,’ and ‘may also be less able to participate in proactive measures to keep themselves safe, and infection control is challenging in these settings.’ We are especially concerned that most ORR facilities require children to share bedrooms, bathrooms, and dining spaces, which make remaining at least six feet apart difficult to observe,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unsurprisingly, the virus has spread quickly and has now infected at least 40 children in ORR custody and 69 self-reported ORR contractor staff and foster parents. The ongoing crisis, inability to protect themselves, and mounting cases in ORR custody expose these children to significant stress.”

They continued, “Children are some of the most vulnerable among us, and we must fulfill our moral and legal obligations to protect their health and safety. These conditions are dangerous for any individual in detention—let alone vulnerable children in our care. Keeping them in needlessly prolonged detention poses immeasurable risk to their lives and the lives of their loved ones.”

Read the full letter below or click here.

April 22, 2020

The Honorable Alex M. Azar II
Secretary
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20201

Dear Secretary Azar and Acting Secretary Wolf,

The Honorable Chad F. Wolf
Acting Secretary
U.S. Department of Homeland Security 301 7th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20528

We write to request that you take all reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of children in U.S. custody due to the risk of the spread of the novel coronavirus among detained children.

There are currently nearly 2,400 children in Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) custody, including licensed shelters. According to public health experts, people in confined spaces “are at special risk of infection, given their living situations,” and “may also be less able to participate in proactive measures to keep themselves safe, and infection control is challenging in these settings.” We are especially concerned that most ORR facilities require children to share bedrooms, bathrooms, and dining spaces, which make remaining at least six feet apart difficult to observe. Unsurprisingly, the virus has spread quickly and has now infected at least 40 children in ORR custody and 69 self-reported ORR contractor staff and foster parents. The ongoing crisis, inability to protect themselves, and mounting cases in ORR custody expose these children to significant stress. 

ORR has a statutory duty to safely and promptly reunify every child in its care. As such, ORR must release these children safely and appropriately to sponsors so that they can better observe the recommended measures to protect themselves and caregiving adults from infection. Prolonged detention harms the physical and mental health of immigrant children. According to an HHS Inspector General report dated March 5, 2020, ORR’s operational challenges in reunifying children caused additional stress to children in its custody. The Executive Office for Immigration Review’s (EOIR) failure to suspend immigration court proceedings for children in ORR custody—thereby requiring them to sit in crowded buses and waiting areas to attend their court hearings—exacerbates the dangers and fears of these vulnerable children. It is imperative that ORR ensure that no child is subjected to unnecessarily protracted detention for reasons that do not protect their health and safety.

To be clear, ORR’s responsibility to promptly reunify children when safe and consistent with medical guidance does not justify departure from applicable federal laws. Under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a statutory mandate to transfer unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border to HHS within 72 hours. Yet, CBP personnel have reportedly expelled unaccompanied children without conducting adequate screening and refferring them to ORR. Moreover, administration officials are reportedly considering delaying the transfer of children to ORR altogether, leaving them in U.S. Border Patrol custody in violation of the TVPRA. This is especially concerning in light of CBP’s documented failure to prioritize the health and safety of children, including its refusal to vaccinate children despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations, the DHS Inspector General’s finding that CBP permitted dangerous overcrowding at facilities holding children, and the deaths of at least six migrant children in CBP custody in less than a year due to medical issues.

Upon transfer to HHS custody, ORR must take recommended measures to protect the health and safety of staff, children, and the general public. That includes the expeditious and safe release of children to sponsors. Although the vast majority of children in ORR custody have sponsors to which they can be released, ORR has reportedly unnecessarily delayed reunifying some of these children with their sponsors. We are also deeply troubled by reports that administration officials are considering policies—including the fingerprinting of adult household members of sponsors—that may delay the reunification process. In identifying appropriate sponsors for children, ORR must ensure its policies are narrowly tailored to protect the health and safety of children. During the ongoing, serious public health crisis, it is unjustifiable to needlessly protract unaccompanied children's detention for any reason not directly related their health and safety.

Children are some of the most vulnerable among us, and we must fulfill our moral and legal obligations to protect their health and safety. These conditions are dangerous for any individual in detention—let alone vulnerable children in our care. Keeping them in needlessly prolonged detention poses immeasurable risk to their lives and the lives of their loved ones. We ask that you urgently and safely pursue expedited release of all immigrant children from U.S. custody to the care of sponsors and loved ones and take all reasonable steps to protect children in your custody.

Sincerely,