HOUSTON — The Biden administration is not requiring FBI fingerprint background checks of caregivers at its rapidly expanding network of emergency sites to hold thousands of immigrant teenagers, alarming child welfare experts who say the waiver compromises safety.
In the rush to get children out of overcrowded and often unsuitable Border Patrol sites, President Joe Biden's team is turning to a measure used by previous administrations: tent camps, convention centers and other huge facilities operated by private contractors and funded by U.S. Health and Human Services. In March alone, the Biden administration announced it will open eight new emergency sites across the Southwest adding 15,000 new beds, more than doubling the size of its existing system.
These emergency sites don't have to be licensed by state authorities or provide the same services as permanent HHS facilities. They also cost far more, an estimated $775 per child per day.
And to staff the sites quickly, the Biden administration has waived vetting procedures intended to protect minors from potential harm.
Staff and volunteers directly caring for children at new emergency sites don't have to undergo FBI fingerprint checks, which use criminal databases not accessible to the public and can overcome someone changing their name or using a false identity.
HHS issued a statement Friday saying that direct care staff and volunteers “must pass public record criminal background checks." Public records checks generally take less time but are reliant on the subject providing correct information.
The agency says those giving direct care are supervised by federal employees or others who have passed fingerprint-based background checks. “In the Emergency Intake Sites, HHS is implementing the standards of care used for children in an emergency response setting,” the agency said.
During former President Donald Trump’s administration, HHS for months did not ensure FBI fingerprint checks or child welfare screenings were done for workers at a large camp in Tornillo, Texas. An Associated Press investigation in 2018 also found staff at another camp at Homestead, Florida, were not given routine screenings to rule out allegations of child abuse or neglect.
HHS’ inspector general warned then that FBI fingerprint checks “provide a unique safeguard” over most commercial background checks that search a person’s name.
“While the various background checks could identify some past criminal convictions or sexual offenses, these checks were not as extensive as the FBI fingerprint background checks,” the inspector general found.
Laura Nodolf, the district attorney in Midland, Texas, where HHS opened an emergency site this month, said that without fingerprint checks, “we truly do not know who the individual is who is providing direct care.”
“That’s placing the children under care of HHS in the path, potentially, of a sex offender,” Nodolf said. "They are putting these children in a position of becoming potential victims.”
Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist who is executive director of the immigration advocacy group Every Last One, noted that HHS requires fingerprint checks of relatives who seek to take in children as part of a vetting process that takes more than 30 days on average.
“Failure to check fingerprints of frontline facility staff exposes vulnerable migrant children to a significant danger of physical and sexual abuse,” she said.
The Biden administration has 18,000 children and teenagers in its custody, a figure that has risen almost daily over the last several weeks. While Biden continues to expel most adults and many families crossing the border, he has declined to reinstate expulsions of unaccompanied immigrant children, which stopped last year after a now-stayed federal court order.
More than 5,000 youths are in border custody, many of them in a South Texas tent facility with limited space, food and access to the outdoors. But Border Patrol is apprehending hundreds more minors than HHS is releasing every day — a difference of 325 just on Thursday.
At the downtown Dallas convention center, one of HHS' emergency sites, almost all of its 2,300 beds were filled just one week after it opened this month.
Child advocates say that rather than opening more unlicensed emergency facilities, the administration must speed up placing children with sponsors, especially the approximately 40% of youths in custody who have a parent in the country ready to take them.
HHS has tried to expedite processing of minors in recent weeks, allowing some youths to be placed with parents while fingerprint checks are pending and authorizing the use of government funds to pay for airfare when a child is released.
Ana, the mother of a 17-year-old teen detained in Dallas, told AP said her son fled gangs trying to recruit him in El Salvador and hoped to join her in Virginia. After an eight-day journey, the teenager crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on March 9. Eight days would pass until she heard from authorities at the border that they had him in custody.
She received a 10-minute call from him on March 20, after he was taken to the Dallas facility. It was the first time she's spoken to him since he entered the country. She says she has repeatedly called HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement to ask if they would release him to her family, but they have refused, saying they have to process her case. In the meantime, she's ready to present documentation proving she is his mother and fit to take him.
“I don’t understand why they are making it so difficult," said Ana, who is not being identified by her last name to protect her son’s privacy. “I know that we are in a pandemic, but maybe I think that it is that they are behind schedule, that maybe there are a lot of people there.”
Tornillo and Homestead were sharply criticized by Democrats and child welfare experts who warned of the potential trauma of detaining thousands of teenagers without adequate support.
Volunteers from the American Red Cross provided care at the first two emergency HHS sites, a converted camp for oil workers in Midland, Texas, and the Dallas convention center. Those volunteers are now being phased out.
The Red Cross and HHS for several days refused to acknowledge that the volunteers weren’t given FBI fingerprint checks. The Red Cross first said that all of its volunteers underwent background checks when they joined the group. On Tuesday, the group said it was “refreshing” checks on about 300 volunteers sent to care for children and that it had not found any new red flags.
HHS spokesman Mark Weber said he could not yet identify which companies or groups will now step in. The department asked contractors in mid-March to submit bids to provide child care and transportation.
Leecia Welch, an attorney for the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law who monitors the treatment of immigrant children, said lawyers would pay “close attention to whether this temporary waiver becomes standard operating practice.”
“Given the urgency of the current placement crisis, families deserve the same flexibility as the for-profit companies contracting with the federal government,” she said.
Safety concerns have already been raised about the Midland camp. One official working there noted a lack of new clothes and caseworkers when teenagers initially arrived, and state regulators last week warned that the water on site may not be safe, forcing U.S. authorities to give teens bottles until they could arrange for water deliveries.
Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, a Dallas-based immigration lawyer, described the Dallas convention center as reminiscent of a barracks but “very welcoming.” She visited the convention center in its first days as a volunteer for Catholic Charities and said that cots for more than 2,000 boys have been placed in socially distanced rows in a ballroom.
After being bused to the site, the boys get clean clothes, a pillow, a blanket and a COVID-19 test, Saenz-Rodriguez said. She saw them last week sitting together at tables, talking and playing card games. Most did not understand why they’d been brought to Dallas or what would happen to them next, she said.
“Their number one question is ‘How long are we going to be here? What’s going to happen to us?’” Saenz-Rodriguez said.
Associated Press journalist Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.