Durbin Questions Administration Officials During Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Ensuring the Safety and Well-Being of Unaccompanied Children

Administration officials from the Departments of Health & Human Services, Homeland Security, Labor, and State testified

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned Administration officials at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the safety and well-being of unaccompanied noncitizen children (UC), who arrive in the United States without immigration status and without a parent or guardian to care forthem. Durbin first questioned the State Department’s Director for Central America, Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Joseph Salazar, about the United States’ ability to economically keep up with the influx of unaccompanied children while also ensuring their safety.  Before his questioning, Durbin read off the number of unaccompanied children coming to the United States, which has significantly increased in the last three years. 

“Any child who shows up at our border deserves to be treated like a real human being and treated like a visitor to America—given protection and help.  I hope we all accept that premise.  Having accepted that premise, you have to ask whether the current system designed long before we ran into these numbers [the large influx of unaccompanied minors in the last three years], is adequate to the task.  Where are these kids going? Why kind of families are they being sent to?  How do we make sure they are safe once they’re there?  The sheer numbers I have given you here make it very difficult to keep up with this flow of people and maintain quality care for these kids,” said Durbin.

“I’d like to start with Mr. Salazar.  You talk about the economic circumstances that create this. Those economic circumstances have been around a long time.  What has changed in the last three or four years?” Durbin asked.

Mr. Salazar responded that there are over 100 million people being displaced globally, including 20 million in the Western Hemisphere, largely from regime changes in countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua.  He continued to say, “We are attempting to tackle this diplomatically through engagement with these countries.”

Durbin then asked, “Can someone address the fact that we offer services, which we have offered for many years, and now we have volumes of numbers of unaccompanied children which are breaking the system and making it difficult for us to keep our promise.  Would someone like to talk about the resources dedicated to this [and] new resources to meet this challenge?”

Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), Robin Dunn Marcos, responded that these children need a trusted adult when coming into the United States, as Durbin mentioned in his opening statement.  She continued to respond that HHS has a thorough vetting process to place these children with vetted sponsors, primarily close family members, but when and if the placements break down, it’s important to have that trusted adult through post-release services or legal services.  She went on to say “we have more children receiving those [legal] services than we have ever had, but we need to continue, and we need the support of Congress to do that.”  She noted that HHS ORR provides services to both those who arrive through the refugee program and unaccompanied children, and due to increases in both programs, HHS is requesting $1.9 billion to be able to expand and ensure all children have the services they need. 

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.

Today, Durbin along with U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced new legislation to provide a comprehensive framework to reform the federal government’s care and custody of UCs.  The Protecting Unaccompanied Children Act would address gaps in our system by improving existing safeguards for the release of UC from government custody, increasing UCs’ access to social services and legal protections, and creating new safeguards and services for children’s safety. 

Following a bombshell New York Times report in February, Chair Durbin took to the Senate floor to call on Congress to protect children from exploitation and fix our broken immigration system. Durbin and 16 Senate colleagues wrote to Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra and then-Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh to request information on children’s placement with sponsors and investigations into child labor.

In May, Durbin announced his intention to hold a committee hearing on the issue, while leading oversight efforts to hold companies accountable for unlawfully employing migrant children. In June, Durbin and U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) wrote to Becerra seeking information related to alleged “whistleblower chilling” by HHS against staff who reported concerns about the risk of labor exploitation and trafficking of unaccompanied children.

The hearing builds on the committee’s hearing on this issue in June, which featured testimony from child welfare and labor experts, and follows Chair Durbin’s letter with 11 Senate colleagues to Department of Labor (DOL) Acting Secretary Julie Su urging the Department to continue holding companies accountable forviolations of child labor laws.