Sen. Coburn Left Wondering: Why Doesn't HHS Check Guardians' Immigration Status?

The Oklahoma Republican got in a heated exchange with a Health and Human Services official about unaccompanied minors at the border.

Sen. Tom Coburn isn't pleased with the government's ability to protect its most sensitive data. (National Journal)

The tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who are caught at the U.S.-Mexico border receive medical care and temporary shelter. The Health and Human Services Department then finds them a more permanent place to live in limbo. But there's something that goes unchecked: The immigration status of their newly appointed guardian.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blasted HHS on Wednesday for that policy, saying it "markedly diminishes" the likelihood that unaccompanied minors will show up at their scheduled immigration hearing.

Children from Central America's Northern Triangle are fleeing their home countries as they attempt to escape violence and economic disparities plaguing the region. And when they're caught at the border, HHS is tasked with securing a place for them to stay while they await an immigration hearing.

About 95 percent of the time, the child is taken out of the HHS's shelter and placed with a parent, relative, or nonrelative sponsor. These guardians are told they're required to bring the child to all court proceedings, said Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary for HHS's Administration for Children and Families.

But committee ranking member Coburn wanted to know whether HHS checks the immigration status of those sponsors first. And it's a question he asked repeatedly at a Wednesday hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Coburn, who supports deporting children quickly, grew frustrated during the exchange, and his questions became more pointed and his voice more heated.{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5068) }}

Coburn: You're missing my point. My point is, I'm all for having the children in the best place, don't get me wrong. But if you're not checking immigration status of those that you place with them, and if, in fact, they are not here legally, the likelihood that they're going to show up before a judge is markedly diminished because it exposes them. So the question I would ask you is, why you all don't ask for status of the people that you place these children with?

Greenberg: So, the specific aspects of what happens in the proceedings are best addressed by my colleague at the Department of Justice.

Coburn: I know. I understand that. I'm asking you the question, why you don't ask the status of the people with whom you're placing the child? Why do you not ask that question? Because in all likelihood, they are not going to show for an immigration hearing.

Greenberg: So, for us the focus needs to be on a safe and appropriate placement for the child.

Coburn: You're not going to answer my question. Why you do not ask that question of those people with whom you're placing these children?

Greenberg: So, even if we have the information as to the parent or other relative's immigration status we would still, at that point, need to look at the totality of the circumstances.

Coburn: I don't disagree with that. I'm asking why do you not ask that question?

Greenberg: Sir, the reason —

Coburn: Is it the policy of HHS not to ask the status of the person with whom you're placing the child?

Greenberg: We do not specifically —

Coburn: Is that the policy of HHS of this country?

Greenberg: Yes, it is. That is the case. Yes.

Nearly 18 percent of total migrants fail to attend their court proceeding, but the Justice Department doesn't have the percentage of unaccompanied minors who are no-shows, Juan Osuna, DOJ Executive Office of Immigration Review director, said at the Wednesday hearing.

Currently, lawmakers are in the midst of determining how to address the influx of unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally, and Congress has some leeway to analyze the situation and make demands. President Obama needs both chambers to approve emergency funding to address the humanitarian crisis — and how to best to stop children from living in the shadows.