protection of migrant children

Ensuring the Safety of Unaccompanied Minors: A Critical Immigration Challenge

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) plays a pivotal role in the care and custody of unaccompanied minor children who arrive in the United States, a responsibility that demands meticulous attention to detail and a deep commitment to child welfare. However, a recent report by the HHS Office of the Inspector General has shed light on significant lapses in the vetting process for sponsors of these vulnerable children, revealing a system that, at times, falls short of its mission to protect.

According to the report, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a component of HHS, failed to update case files with the outcomes of fingerprint checks for child abuse and neglect in 19% of cases. Additionally, illegible sponsor IDs were identified in 35% of cases, and required background and criminal records checks documentation was missing from 16% of case files. The report also highlighted that follow-up calls to assess the well-being of children were made well beyond the prescribed one-month deadline in 22% of cases, with some calls occurring as late as nearly a year after the child's release.

These findings are particularly concerning given the vulnerability of unaccompanied minors, who often face exploitation risks. The importance of thorough vetting cannot be overstated, as it serves as a critical safeguard against placing children in potentially harmful situations.

The backdrop of this issue is a broader context of challenges faced by the U.S. immigration system, including strained resources and operational constraints. In 2021, the Biden administration contended with a record number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, nearly 123,000, a situation that tested the limits of the system's capacity to provide care and find suitable sponsors.

In response to these challenges, the Biden administration has initiated measures to enhance the vetting process and protect children from exploitation. A task force was launched to increase collaboration between HHS and the U.S. Department of Labor, aiming to safeguard children from companies violating child labor laws. These efforts underscore the administration's commitment to addressing the issue, but as highlighted by National Immigration Forum president Jennie Murray, more needs to be done to ensure the safety and well-being of unaccompanied minors.

The plight of unaccompanied minors is a stark reminder of the complexities and moral obligations inherent in immigration policy and enforcement. It underscores the need for a multifaceted approach that encompasses not only rigorous vetting processes but also comprehensive support systems to ensure the long-term welfare of these children.

For immigration law practitioners and advocates, these developments highlight the critical importance of oversight, advocacy, and legal guidance in navigating the intricacies of immigration law and policy. The protection of unaccompanied minors is not just a legal issue but a humanitarian one, demanding diligent attention and action from all stakeholders involved.

In conclusion, the recent HHS watchdog report serves as a call to action for the U.S. immigration system to bolster its processes and protections for unaccompanied minors. It is imperative that all involved parties, from government agencies to legal professionals, work collaboratively to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are afforded the safety and care they rightfully deserve.


Britain Eakin, Law360, February 15, 2024.

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