Several Democratic senators, including former presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), grilled Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan on reports that unaccompanied migrant children are not being appropriately screened to determine if they are victims of human trafficking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of March 20, suspended migration of immigrants at Mexican and Canadian borders because of the coronavirus pandemic. The order suspends admission of certain immigrants regardless of their country of origin.
Morgan, testifying at a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs hearing, was repeatedly asked by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) to respond to reports that nearly 3,000 unaccompanied children were deported since the CDC order. This was potentially in violation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act that mandates transferring children who are deemed at risk for human trafficking, persecution, and other grave harm to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
When asked if his agency was complying with federal human trafficking law and transferring unaccompanied minors to ORR, Morgan responded, “Yes and no.”
Morgan explained that his agency’s priority was enforcing the CDC’s order to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the U.S. Morgan claimed that all unaccompanied minors held by CPB were screened for human trafficking risk, but he could not say what portion of the approximately 2,000 screened children were sent to ORR compared with being deported.
In response to questions from Harris, Morgan said that CBP does not track whether or not deported children are reunified with their families.
“We rely on the country of origin for them to reunite them with their family,” he said.
In a telephone interview, Miriam Abaya, a policy analyst for the immigrant advocacy group Young Center for Immigrant and Children’s Rights, argued that CBP and the White House are using COVID-19 as a pretext to avoid legal obligations.
“We can allow children into this country and protect public health at the same time,” said Abaya. “Sending them back to the very dangers that they fled is not the solution if we’re in fact focused on children’s welfare.”
She also noted that under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the U.S. is required to make sure children are safely returned to their home country and report to Congress whether or not they are doing so.
“They absolutely have a role to play in making sure that when children go back to their home country, they’re going back to someone who can care for them and that they’re going back safely,” said Abaya.
Over a phone interview, Ursela Ojeda, policy advisor for Women’s Refugee Commission, pushed back on both CBP and the CDC to explain why the current border restrictions continue to be necessary.
“The CDC has been politicized and is blocking the admission of asylum seekers and vulnerable individuals at the border in the name of public health,” said Ojeda.
The CDC immigration order remains in effect until the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar determines there is no longer a need for it.
Senators questioned Morgan on a host of other issues, from the Government Accountability Office’s recent report of CBP misspending $60 million dollars on personnel equipment instead of on safety provisions for migrants, to how CBP handles allegations of misconduct reported by migrants while held in its custody.