A top official at the US Department of Health and Human Services on Monday called reports that the agency has lost nearly 1,500 immigrant children false and misleading.
The children are not lost, HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a statement. Their sponsors simply have not responded to follow-up calls from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the HHS department that oversees the care of unaccompanied alien or minor children.
The agency was under no obligation to make the 30-day follow-up calls to ensure that the children and their sponsors needed no additional services, he said. Now, this voluntary action is being used to confuse and spread misinformation, he said.
"This is a classic example of the adage 'No good deed goes unpunished,'" he said, offering a possible explanation.
"While there are many possible reasons for this, in many cases sponsors cannot be reached because they themselves are illegal aliens and do not want to be reached by federal authorities," he continued.
"This is the core of this issue: In many cases, HHS has been put in the position of placing illegal aliens with the individuals who helped arrange for them to enter the country illegally. This makes the immediate crisis worse and creates a perverse incentive for further violation of federal immigration law."
So continues the back and forth over who's responsible for the unaccounted children.
The information came to light in a Senate subcommittee meeting in April. A top HHS official testified that ORR was "unable to determine with certainty" the whereabouts of 20% of undocumented minors that it had placed in the homes of sponsors. Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary for Children and Families, which is part of HHS, disclosed the number while discussing the state of ORR.
His statement came under renewed scrutiny amid reports that immigrant children are being separated from their parents at the US border. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen has defended the policy, saying that similar separations happen in the US "every day." But Nielsen agreed with senators that more must be done to protect the children who either come to the US without their parents or are separated from them.
After staying in an ORR shelter, most children are placed with sponsors they have close ties to -- typically a parent or close relative, sometimes with non-relatives, Wagner testified.
At that point, "ORR is not legally responsible for children after they are released from ORR care," he said. ORR would need more resources in order to continue being legally responsible for the children, he added.
The claims have done little to quell critics accusing HSS and ORR of neglecting their duty to the children. On Monday, Wagner fired back, saying that the Unaccompanied Alien Children program is being abused at the expense of American taxpayers.
"It was never intended to be a foster care system with more than 10,000 children in custody at an immediate cost to the federal taxpayer of over one billion dollars per year."
Hargan echoed the sentiment.
"The tracking of UAC after release is just one of the recent headlines that focus on the symptoms of our broken immigration system while ignoring its fundamental flaws. President Trump's administration has been calling on Congress to put an end to dangerous loopholes in US immigration laws like the practice of 'catch and release,' in which federal authorities release illegal immigrants to await hearings for which few show up," Hargan said.
In the worst cases, these loopholes are being exploited by human traffickers and violent gangs like MS-13. Until these laws are fixed, the American taxpayer is paying the bill for costly programs that aggravate the problem and put children in dangerous situations."
CORRECTION: An earlier headline on this story incorrectly attributed the HHS statement to another agency.