Merkley, Senators Press Biden Administration to Raise the Standard of Care for Migrant Children

Thousands of children have been held in unlicensed influx facilities

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley is leading a push today to urge the Biden administration to make a decisive pivot away from the policies of the Trump administration and raise the standard of care for unaccompanied children in U.S. custody. Merkley was joined in his effort by U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

When unaccompanied, noncitizen children arrive in the U.S. to seek asylum, they are typically placed in licensed shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) before being united with a sponsor, such as a U.S.-based family member, while they await the result of their asylum case. In recent years, ORR has often run out of room in their system of licensed shelters, and during those periods, has opened and housed children in unlicensed “influx” facilities or Emergency Intake Sites —like the tent encampment in Tornillo, Texas that Merkley went to the border to investigate in 2018. The use of these facilities has frequently violated the terms of the Flores settlement, a legal agreement that was put in place to protect the wellbeing of migrant children and limit the amount of time they spend in unlicensed settings, like Border Patrol holding facilities and these emergency influx shelters.

The Biden administration has requested an additional $2.5 billion in emergency funding for ORR this year, and the senators urged the Biden administration to ensure that the funding is tied to a long-term plan to raise the standards of care for children and end the use of unlicensed facilities.

“ORR’s reliance on unlicensed influx facilities or Emergency Intake Sites (EISs) over the last several months reflects a long-term failure invest in high quality care for non-citizen children,” wrote the senators in a letter to ORR Director Cindy Huang. “While much of this reliance arose as a result of the former administration’s intentional decimation of the asylum process, we urge you to shape a different legacy for the Biden administration that is grounded in child welfare and exceeds the minimum standards set forth in the Flores Settlement Agreement. We can and we must do more to meaningfully improve conditions and treatment of children in federal care over the coming year, inclusive of ORR’s primary mission to move children to their families as quickly as possible and to provides services to do that well. To that end, we ask that you commit to several child welfare principles outlined below.”

“We appreciate the steps that ORR has taken to place children in familial environments more rapidly over the past year—this is a critical improvement in caring for the wellbeing of children,” they continued. “However, ORR must commit to a credible plan to shut down all EISs as quickly as possible, and to not reopening similar unlicensed facilities even in response to high numbers of new unaccompanied child referrals by building a network of care providers that is resilient to large and small fluctuations in arrivals, improving case management in both quality of care and time-to-release, and by creating actionable contingency plans that ensure quality of care for children even during large numbers of arrivals.”

Specifically, the senators asked ORR to commit to upholding the following principles:

1. All ORR-operated or contracted temporary and standard facilities must comply with the terms set forth in Exhibit 1 of the Flores Settlement Agreementwhich set out the minimum standards of dignified care for children.

2. No child may spend more than 30 days in Influx Care Facilities or Emergency Intake Sites.

3. No child under 15 or with vulnerabilities (e.g. a disability, medical condition, or if a child speaks a language for which there are no available translation services) should ever be held in an EIS for any length of time.

The full text of the letter is available here and follows below.