As the federal government continues its partial shutdown over the issue of immigration and a border wall, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday is expected to release a report on a sweeping investigation into the government’s “unaccompanied alien children” program. The inspector general, which is an independent investigative arm of HHS, hasn’t provided much information on the report. But in August, it announced it was opening an investigation “on the care and well-being of all children residing in [Office of Refugee Resettlement]-funded facilities, including the subset of children who were separated and deemed ineligible for reunification.” 

How the government cares for migrant children in its custody has been in the news for much of the past year, but the main federal program in charge of caring for these children is still little known or understood by the American public. Texas Monthly reporter Robert Moore has spent months researching government care for unaccompanied migrant children. Here’s his explainer of the issue:

What are “unaccompanied alien children”?

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That’s the phrase the government uses to describe people under 18 who don’t have a parent or guardian when they either present themselves at a port of entry and request asylum, or when they are apprehended by Border Patrol agents after crossing between ports. In recent years, this has largely meant children from Central America. In most cases, they are seeking to join parents or other family members already in the United States. Those crossing between ports usually seek out Border Patrol agents in order to surrender and request asylum. Whether they present at a port or cross between ports in violation of U.S. immigration law, these children are lawfully in the United States once they pass an interview that demonstrates they have a “credible fear” of persecution if returned to their home country. Their asylum claims and deportation cases are decided by the same immigration judges who handle adult cases.

Who is responsible for these children?

The Office of Refugee Resettlement was created in 2003 as part of a broad restructuring of security-related efforts following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is part of the Department of Health and Human Services and its mission has been to care for children who crossed the border without a parent or guardian. The agency places children in shelters while searching for and vetting potential sponsors to take them in, usually a parent or other family member already in the United States. One of the sponsor responsibilities is to ensure that children show up for immigration hearings.

ORR currently has just over 100 permanent shelters in 17 states, including 35 in Texas. These shelters, which usually resemble dormitories, are subject to state child care regulations.

Initially, ORR handled 7,000 to 8,000 children a year, mainly from Mexico, HHS officials have said. But those numbers began to grow in 2012 as unaccompanied Central American children began arriving in greater numbers, spiking at more than 57,000 in fiscal year 2014 and more than 59,000 in fiscal year 2016. In fiscal year 2018, ORR cared for 49,100 children, HHS has said.

In  fiscal year 2018, which ended September 31, 92 percent of the children in ORR custody came from three countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Almost three-fourths were over age 14, and 71 percent were boys.

ORR set up “influx facilities” in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018 when the number of children in its custody exceeded bed space in its shelter network. Because influx shelters are set up on federal land, they are not subject to state regulations. The most recent such facility was set up in the El Paso County town of Tornillo in June. More than 6,200 children were housed in tents over seven months at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry, an international border crossing outside El Paso. ORR currently has one other influx facility, at a former Air Force base and Job Corps site outside Miami.

What are these shelters like?

The shelters vary in size, handling anywhere from a handful of children to more than 1,000. All are operated by companies under contract with ORR. Most of these companies are nonprofits, though some are for-profit. Media reports have documented many problems with these shelters, including allegations of sexual and physical abuse and troubling laxness in their hiring processes. HHS says any such “allegation of abuse or neglect is taken seriously and aggressively investigated by ORR. Whenever appropriate, swift action is taken to address violations of policy, including initiating employee disciplinary action, termination, and reporting to law enforcement agencies and any relevant licensing bodies.”

Perhaps the most controversial shelter contractor has been Austin-based Southwest Key, a nonprofit that is the largest shelter provider in the ORR network. It was forced to close two shelters in Arizona last year after the state alleged it failed to provide proof that its workers had undergone appropriate background checks. The Justice Department announced last month that it was investigating Southwest Key following a New York Times story alleging possible misuse of federal money.

Does this have anything to do with family separation?

From April through June of 2018, Customs and Border Protection agents separated almost 3,000 children from their parents at the border as part of the administration’s controversial “zero tolerance” enforcement policy. Those children were classified by the government as unaccompanied and placed in ORR custody. Their parents were charged with illegal entry, usually a misdemeanor, and held by the Department of Homeland Security. In September, the DHS inspector general issued a scathing report that found that “DHS was not fully prepared to implement the zero tolerance policy, or to deal with certain effects of the policy following implementation.” More than 100 children who were taken from their parents this spring remain in ORR custody, according to court records. Many of their parents were deported.

What’s new with the unaccompanied children program?

Even though the number of children coming into ORR custody last year was lower than some previous years—even with the addition of children taken from their parents at the border—the average length of stay for children in shelters almost doubled, to 60 days, putting a huge strain on ORR facilities. The lengthening stays were caused primarily by new requirements that sponsors provide fingerprints for all adults in the household, with the knowledge that those fingerprints would be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many potential sponsor households include undocumented family members, creating fear that led to family members backing away from taking children out of government custody, critics of the administration have said. Texas Monthly first wrote about the changes as they went into effect in June, with experts warning that the policies would make it much more difficult to place children with sponsors.

The number of children in custody reached almost 15,000 in mid-December, the highest single-day number ever recorded. That included almost 2,800 children at a temporary tent facility in Tornillo that was set up in June. Administration officials on December 18 lifted the fingerprint requirement for all adults in a sponsor household, and thousands of children have since been moved from ORR custody to family sponsors. The last child left Tornillo on January 11, and the facility is expected to close completely by the end of the month. HHS has said just over 10,000 children remain in ORR custody, including about 1,000 at the temporary facility in Florida.

What’s in this report being released on Thursday?

The HHS inspector general provided little information, other than scheduling a media call for Thursday morning “to announce the findings contained in an issue brief regarding children in the unaccompanied alien children program.” It’s very unusual for an inspector general to have a press conference to release a report; they’re usually posted on a website with little fanfare. That’s an indication that whatever’s being announced is a big deal.

In August, the HHS Office of Inspector General updated its “work plan” and announced a comprehensive investigation into the program involving unaccompanied alien children. A report on that investigation is likely what is being released on Thursday. “We will identify vulnerabilities in facilities’ efforts to protect children in their care from harm and to provide needed physical and mental health services, including efforts to address trauma. OIG will also explore the challenges facilities face, including challenges presented by external factors such as HHS policies and management decisions. This review will focus on the care and well-being of all children residing in ORR-funded facilities, including the subset of children who were separated and deemed ineligible for reunification. For these children, OIG will also explore efforts made to contact and reunify with their parents and/or identify a suitable sponsor. OIG will gather information for this review by rapidly deploying multidisciplinary teams of evaluators, auditors, investigators, and lawyers to conduct comprehensive facility visits across the country. OIG will also conduct interviews with decision makers, including HHS senior leadership,” the updated work plan said.