(CNSNews.com) – A top official with the Department of Health and Human Services disputed reports Tuesday that it lost more than 1400 illegal alien children who were placed with sponsors throughout the U.S.
Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary for Administration for Children and Families at HHS, told reporters Tuesday that reports that HHS lost track of more than 1400 unaccompanied minor children (UACs) is “an inaccurate characterization of what happened.”
Wagner piggybacked on comments made by Hogan Gidley, special assistant to the president and White House deputy press secretary, who called out “misreporting and fake news over the weekend as it relates to the immigration crisis in this country.”
“You guys saw a lot of misreporting and fake news over the weekend as it relates to the immigration crisis in this country and largely created by Democrats’ refusal to acknowledge or close dangerous loopholes in immigration policy or law that allow people to come to this country in untold numbers,” Gidley said.
“Let me go back to a comment that Hogan made in his opening remarks and address the news story reporting on 1400 lost kids. That is an inaccurate characterization of what happened,” Wagner said. He explained that “after a kid is, child is placed with a sponsor, we do a follow-up call at the 30-day mark to check in with the family and see how things are going.”
“This is done out of an abundance of concern out of the welfare of the children. It is not legally mandated, and we are not in custody of the children at that point,” Wagner said. “In the last fiscal year, in 14 percent of those calls, the family didn’t answer the phone.”
He said there could be “a number of reasons for that,” including the sponsor family’s fear of speaking to a government official, because in many cases, the sponsoring family is in fact in the country illegal too.
“Now there’s a number of reasons for that, including the fact that we do place kids with families that are themselves here illegally, because we have no legal criterion for denying sponsorship to those who are here illegally. So you can imagine that many of those would not choose to speak to a federal official calling them on the phone, but there’s no reason to believe that anything has happened to the kids,” said Wagner.
“If you call a friend, and they don’t answer the phone, you don’t assume that they’ve been kidnapped. So that characterization that the kids are missing is incorrect, and I just want to emphasize that they are not in our custody at the point at which that voluntary phone call is made,” he said.
The purpose of the UAC program “is to receive children who’ve entered the country illegally and provide care for them until such time as we can find an appropriate sponsor who is usually a parent or a family member,” Wagner said.
“So we have a two-fold responsibility: take care of the children while they’re in our custody, place them in the United States with parents or family members, and as I mentioned, we have a legal obligation to try and do that expeditiously, and we’re not able to deny placement just because parents are in the country---parents or family members are in the country illegally,” he said.
“The unaccompanied alien children program was never intended … to be a foster care system with more than 10,000 children in custody, which is the case today, at an immediate cost to the federal taxpayer at over a billion dollars a year. The program has grown vastly beyond its original intention,” Wagner said.
“HHS’s primary legal responsibility is to temporarily house and then release the UAC. Under current immigration loopholes, if anyone under the age of 18 illegally enters the United States without a parent or guardian, they will initially be placed into HHS custody and later released into the interior of the United States rather than return home to their country of origin,” he said.
“This is an example of open borders, and you can see that the UAC program is being utilized, because it has an economic benefit for the people who are coming here often with the aid and assistance of smugglers,” Wagner added.
“So HHS has been put in the position of placing illegal aliens with individuals who helped arrange for them to enter the country illegally in the first place. This makes the immediate crisis worse and creates an economic incentive for further violation of federal immigration law,” he added.
Wagner said a memorandum of agreement between the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security represents “a major step forward” in the vetting process, because it gives HHS information to more thoroughly screen “unaccompanied alien children for a background in gang activity.”
HHS never knowingly releases UACs with gang backgrounds into the general population unless a court orders HHS to do so, “which has happened from time to time,” he said.
Furthermore, HHS will more thoroughly vet sponsors, Wagner said. This way, they’ll be able to prevent UACs from being released into human trafficking rings, which has happened during the Obama administration.
“I think we do an excellent job now, but with DHS’s cooperation, we will conduct a fingerprint background check on every sponsor to further ensure that there’s never an incident of kids being released into human trafficking rings as regrettably occurred in 2016 under the previous administration,” he said.