(CNSNews.com) - "It is beyond belief the level of children that are coming across the border right now," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress on Thursday.
"These are unaccompanied children. These are kids just coming across. They don't have a parent with them. They are coming by themselves." Azar called it a "tremendous crisis," and he warned that this year's funding will not be enough to house and care for the crowded "temporary influx facilities."
We are getting 300, 350 unaccompanied alien children crossing the border and referred to HHS every single day right now. These are 10, 12, 13- 15-year-old kids. They are not coming with parents, they are coming across the border by themselves and this is -- these are historic levels for us.
That is a 97 percent increase in February from the previous year February. It's just not sustainable at this rate. I know the Ranking Member (Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.) raised in her opening statement concern about temporary influx facilities. I will work with this committee to do anything we can to take care of the children appropriately. Any ideas you have how to ensure that we are doing that well, I would love to enhance our fixed permanent capacity. It's cheaper, it's more economical.
Azar told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that as of Thursday morning, "We have 12,340 children in our care. We have got 428 available beds with another 1,314 beds subject to--that could be available, but usually it's an issue of getting adequate staffing to be able to bring them online. We are very tight right now," he told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Azar said most of the children are coming from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala: "We've been getting an increasing mix of Guatemalan male teenagers who have no family connections here. Those become extremely difficult for us to place out."
By law, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has custody and must provide care for each unaccompanied minor (UAC) under age 18.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) had the most contentious exchange with Azar, essentially accusing him of being a jailer:
"You said that you have sent a letter to Congress to fund an expansion of the child prison system under this administration. What expansion level are you planning to go to?" Merkley asked Azar.
Azar said he's notified Congress that HHS needs to transfer and reprogram $286 million to supplement the $385 million already appropriated, and even that "will not prove adequate for this year."
Merkley asked him, "So what is the capacity of the child prison system that...you're seeking with this money?"
Azar said the transferred money would support the current capacity of about 14,000 beds.
"You keep saying prison system," Azar told Merkley. "If you've got an alternative approach to how to care for these children, please tell us because...It'd be nice if you told us how to do it...We want to be compassionate and deliver safe and secure environment for the children."
"Okay, well you asked me, Merkley said. "I'll--will have a little dialogue here. It's called sponsors. And the reason it's so hard to get sponsors right now is the administration is telling potential sponsors that all their information will be shared with ICE, therefore people are not coming forward to be sponsors because they don't want to be stuck into our--our criminal examination system."
(Most of the sponsors are illegal aliens themselves, and therefore, they are reluctant to come to the attention of the federal government.)
"These children belong in homes and schools and parks, not locked up," Merkley said. "I called them prisons because they are locked up."
Azar said he agreed: "I want every child out within an appropriate safely vetted sponsor in the community."
"Then please examine the reasons why it's so hard to recruit sponsors," Merkley said, noting that it is much less expensive to place children with sponsors than it is to keep them in government custody.
Later, Azar explained that the four categories of sponsorship are laid out in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. "Our preference is...always a category one sponsor, which would be a parent or guardian here in the United States already that we can place them with. Then category two would be our other relatives -- aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters that we would place them with, and then the three would be more distant relatives that we could place."
Azar said the law requires home visits and home inspections in cases where there are "red flags."
"We always have the right to and do do fingerprints and other biometric checking to confirm identity or to assist with background checking of any individuals. That's all--that to my knowledge has long been the case. We've had some heightened restric-- some heightened requirements, in part driven by, if you'll remember... on children who got placed with traffickers."
Azar noted that immigration status is part of child-placement decisions: "If somebody, for instance, is just about to be deported, they wouldn't be an adequate long-term sponsor for someone, so we want to make sure of that information."
Azar said HHS will place unaccompanied children with illegal aliens, if those sponsors are "appropriate" from a child welfare perspective. "Most of our children are placed probably with individuals who are illegally in the country."
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told the committee, "We need to do a better job of communicating to sponsors that their confidentiality is protected, that their family situation is protected."
Schatz said UACs need sponsors: "And to the extent that potential sponsors are afraid to do so because they're afraid they're going to end up in some database, we need to do a better job of telling them that that--that there is a law that protects their confidentiality. And I'm hoping we can work together to follow up on that."