Biden administration lost track of thousands of unaccompanied minors who entered U.S. illegally

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says his state didn’t “want to be facilitating very harmful policies not only in terms of the rule of law, not only in terms of what drug cartels may be introducing into our country, but also the treatment of people who are basically being trafficked."

Updated: February 12, 2022 - 10:10pm

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During a five-month period last year, the Biden administration lost track of at least 45,000 unaccompanied minors who illegally crossed the border into the U.S.

And as more illegal immigrants continue to end up in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that Florida didn’t “want to be facilitating very harmful policies not only in terms of the rule of law, not only in terms of what drug cartels may be introducing into our country, but also the treatment of people who are basically being trafficked as what is effectively the largest human smuggling operation in American history.”

The number of unaccompanied minors transported to the southern border initially increased in January 2021 to 5,820. This number increased to 9,402 in February, to 18,870 in March, to 18,954 in July, and to 18,806 in August, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

By the end of 2021, more than 107,000 unaccompanied minors who entered the U.S. illegally were released to sponsors in the U.S., the highest number on record, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says.

The majority were purportedly between the ages of 15 and 17, although there’s no shared database that Border Patrol agents use to verify anyone’s age, or identity with the governments of the 150-plus countries they’re coming from. Roughly two-thirds were males, according to CBP data.

One of them was a Honduran national who reportedly provided false identification to remain in the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor. His true identity wasn’t verified by Border Patrol or ICE agents who released him, or by those who arranged his transportation to Florida. Only the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office learned his real identity after they arrested him for allegedly killing his sponsor, a Jacksonville father of four.

While Floridians grieved over another Florida man killed by an illegal immigrant, the Department of Homeland Security announced its plan to protect “stateless individuals,” pledging to “reduce barriers to accessing legal immigration status and associated benefits.”

ICE also announced its plan to transfer and monitor 18- and 19 year-old illegal immigrants into U.S. communities “while promoting compliance with immigration obligations and release conditions” as they “await final determination of their immigration cases,” instead of complying with a court order to reinstate the Remain in Mexico policy, where they’d remain until their immigration process was completed.

Within months of Biden entering office, Border Patrol agents were apprehending “more unaccompanied children than at any point” in Customs and Border Protection history, Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd said last year.

Agents were “forced to hold a good number of these children long past what the law allowed. Instead of creating a long-term solution, the Biden administration merely cut back on the vetting process of the sponsors to whom children were being released,” he said.

The decision to weaken the vetting process partially contributed to the administration admitting that it initially lost contact with 40% of roughly 114,000 unaccompanied minors who entered the U.S. illegally, Axios first reported.

By May 2021, roughly one of three calls made to the sponsors of children went unanswered, Axios found. The trend is expected to have continued, especially since ICE doesn’t know where roughly 40,000 illegal immigrants released into the U.S. over a period of five months were, according to documents released by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin. An additional 50,000 hadn’t reported to their deportation proceedings over the same time period.

Unaccompanied minors fall under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. At its peak, HHS had 20,339 minors in its care in April 2021, with an average shelter occupancy rate of 76%, HHS reported.

An HHS spokesperson explained that once the minors leave their custody, HHS isn’t responsible for them. "While we make every effort to voluntarily check on children after we unite them with parents or sponsors and offer certain post-unification services, we no longer have legal oversight once they leave our custody," the spokesperson told Axios.

HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement work with nongovernmental organizations to transport minors to family members or sponsors nationwide. ORR guidance requires a 30-day follow up call from the date of release in order to “determine whether the child is still residing with the sponsor, is enrolled in or attending school, is aware of upcoming court dates and is safe."

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said initially when minors started pouring across the border, “In more than 80 percent of cases, the [unaccompanied minor] has a family member in the United States. In more than 40 percent of cases, that family member is a parent or legal guardian. These are children being reunited with their families who will care for them.”

But HHS data released to Axios in response to a FOIA request shows that unsuccessful attempts to reach minors increased from 26% in January to 37% in May. And it remains unclear how many of the estimated 107,000 minors released into the U.S. were actually reunited with family members or not.

By July 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice was already investigating whether some minors released by HHS were being used as forced labor. Teenagers were allegedly trafficked to agricultural or poultry processing facilities in Alabama and Oregon, Bloomberg Law first reported.

But before that, in April 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned of sexual abuse and violence being committed against minors held at two facilities in El Paso and San Antonio, Texas. He called on the Biden administration to close them, arguing, “the Biden administration is presiding over the abuse of children.”

DeSantis said at an event on Monday, “If you look at the absolute explosion of illegal migrants coming across the southern border, it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

He added that Florida sent support last summer to help Texas interdict illegal immigrants. “The problem,” he said, “is you interdict and then you give them to the feds and then the feds will fly people in the middle of the night at two in the morning and drop them off … into different communities. No one knows who a lot of these people are.”

Another thing most people don’t understand, DeSantis added, is “this is not like Mexicans coming across, by and large. These are people from all over the world. … from Africa, the Middle East, South America. The APB has gone out to basically say, ‘Why would you want to go through three years of an immigration process … just come across the border illegally and you’re basically home free.’”

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