Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan joined me this morning to discuss the details of what happens when children are taken into custody of unpermitted entry into the United States:
HH: So pleased to welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show the Deputy Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, Eric Hargan. Deputy Secretary Hargan, welcome, it’s good to have you this morning.
EH: Thank you, Hugh, good to be here.
HH: I see you were a partner at Greenberg Traurig before you came. My friend, Danny Seiden, just joined your Phoenix office down there, great lawyer in Arizona. How do like the transition from lawyering back to running, being the number two at the biggest agency in the government other than the DOD?
EH: Well, it’s, yeah, it’s been a great transition back. This is actually a return back for my second tour of duty at HHS. I was here under President Bush as well. So it’s a kind of return home for me.
HH: All right, let me begin with the press release issued in your name this morning. It begins, “The assertion that unaccompanied alien children, UAC, are lost is completely false.”
HH: Why is that completely false?
EH: Well, because they’re not lost. They have been placed, in the vast majority of cases, with parents or close relatives. So when they have a sponsor, we release them to the sponsor. And therefore, they’re not lost. They’re given to, in the vast majority of cases, parents or close relatives. The only reason why people believe falsely that the children are lost is because that sponsor does not answer the phone when we make the call after 30 days.
HH: How many children are unaccounted for?
EH: The last numbers that we have were something, as you saw, a little over 1,400. That’s not lost. Again, these are just cases where a phone call was not answered after 30 days.
HH: Are you certain, Deputy Secretary Hargan, that some of these children are not lost?
EH: Well, lost would mean lost from the parent or close relative that they were placed with, from the sponsor that took them from the shelter where we were keeping them. So in other words, they were placed with a vetted sponsor. So if they’re lost, they’re lost from that sponsor, not lost from us. HHS is not their sponsor. The government is not their sponsor. We place them with a parent or a close relative in the vast majority of cases. So any child that was lost would have been lost from that sponsor, not from the government.
HH: Are you renewing the efforts to contact those sponsors to find out how many, if any, children are indeed missing from their sponsor’s care?
EH: Well, when they leave our shelters, we don’t undertake ongoing surveillance. We don’t have the authority, really, to do ongoing, continuous surveillance of the sponsors and the unaccompanied children. So that’s not really, we don’t even have the legal authority to do so. In fact, these 30 day calls are voluntary on the part of HHS. So this was a plan that just started a couple of years ago. In fact, less than two years ago, we started making these calls to check up on the children. So we don’t have authority to go much beyond that in terms of sort of keeping continuous surveillance.
HH: Why make the call, Deputy Secretary, if you can’t do anything when you don’t find the child is with the sponsor?
EH: Well, it started under the previous administration, that they started doing these calls just to make sure that there were, that they had access to supportive services. So the children do have, they need supportive services, the sponsors may as well. So HHS started making these calls to see that they were plugged in, maintains a 1-800 numbers that the sponsors or the children can call into if they need services that are provided either by us or our grantees.
HH: Well, what happens under the previous administration and the current if nobody answers the phone or if they answer the phone and the child is missing?
EH: Well, if they don’t answer the phone, we just record that as a fact that that happens. We make sure that that’s kept, we keep apprised of that. But we don’t have the authority to go beyond that and kind of track the children down or return them to our custody. We just, that’s not part of the legal authorities that Congress has given us.
HH: Do you report to local, state or federal authority, law enforcement authority, that a child is missing or unable to be contacted?
EH: Well, if there’s a reason why our providers believe that the child is unsafe or that there has been a change in circumstances that they think that it’s warranted, then yes, they reach out to the local child welfare entities, either state or local, to get them involved on this, because it’s really, in many cases, it’s the local people that are going to be the first line of protection and help for these children. You know, we can do just so much from Washington in terms of coordinating this. And we do what we can. Our providers do what they can. So we have a national system of grantees and providers who work on these issues, and they’re the ones who maintain more of the details on…
HH: How often does a referral to local, state or federal authorities occur?
EH: You know, this is a judgment call by the local providers when they have it.
HH: I’m not following that. So the local provider says we don’t know where the child is, and then it’s up the local provider to say we’re going to turn it over to police or the FBI?
EH: Yeah, the people who maintain the shelters for us, and then they make the calls out. and when they believe that there has been a situation where a child might be in danger, unsafe or needing additional assistance, they usually reach out to the local child welfare entities or the states.
HH: Do we know how often that happens, Mr. Deputy Secretary?
EH: I don’t know that we have a current data on how often those calls go out to the local welfare agencies.
HH: All right, now I want to turn to the second part of this story. I don’t want to conflate the two. Those are children in custody who are not accounted for, but not also lost. But what about the second part of this story? Are, in fact, children ripped from the arms of their mothers at the border?
EH: Well, we don’t deal with the frontline immigration issues here at HHS. But when, as is commonly the case, when a parent is charged with a crime, the child does not go into a detention facility, into an adult detention facility. There were, there have been parental facilities that were maintained, but under the court decision, the children can only be kept in those for 20 days. So the children are not sent to an adult detention facility or jail with the parents. That’s typical sort of across the, you know, this case or others. So we maintain the shelters to make sure that the children are in an age appropriate shelter. So the children are brought, instead of going in with adults into a detention facility, they go into an age appropriate one.
HH: To your knowledge, does that occur in a traumatic fashion?
EH: Not to my knowledge. I mean, I think any separation is, it depends on the situation, but I know that we attempt to make sure that the children are kept safe, that they have food, security, classes, they get educated at the shelters for as long as we have them.
HH: Do the children stay in touch with their parents while they are in the shelters?
EH: They can actually reach out and we can put them in contact with their parents by phone.
HH: And how many children a month are being apprehended at the border, Mr. Deputy Secretary?
EH: You know, this varies. They go, it can be thousands of children who are apprehended per month. It just depends on, and it varies by season. It varies by month. It varies by changes in news either in the U.S. or in the countries that they come from. So the influx varies widely of the number of children that come in. And so it’s, yeah…
HH: How many are accompanied and how many are unaccompanied minors?
EH: The accompanied versus unaccompanied minors, so I think most of the children end up being unaccompanied one way or another. In other words, like whether they are separated from their parents because the parents are charged with illegal entry into the United States or otherwise. In other words, we take care of all the children that we are given, that come over the border.
HH: And what I’m trying to get at is a good understanding of how many of those children arrive at the border with mom and dad, or how many arrive with a trafficker or a coyote. Do you know?
EH: I think a majority of the children really are coming over the borders with some relative of some sort. In other words, like most of them have a relative, whether it’s a parent or another relative, that comes across the border. But there are still a large number that are independently smuggled across at the request, many times, of their relatives, which creates its own terrible issue of safety of the children, that they’re sent independently over the border. And really, it varies, also, by the age of the child. Many cases, if you’re dealing with teenagers, late teenagers, they may independently come over the border. They’re still children, but it’s a different situation than it is when you’re dealing with sort of small children in the care of their parents or other close relatives.
HH: Sure. When the Office of Refugee Resettlement of HHS is assigned a child, where are they taken? Where are they housed?
EH: There are a network of about 100 shelters stretching across 14 states where they are held. So you know, we are routinely adding on extra capacity to address the fact that we have an increased influx of the unaccompanied alien children into the system. So we are dealing with what is a system that is a fundamentally flawed immigration system that leads there to be a magnet for people to come over the borders in an uncontrolled way. That leads a sort of carry-over effect is on the children who cannot be housed in an adult detention facility who are sent to these, the shelters that are run by our Office of Refugee Resettlement. And so you know, we have a network we’re expanding all the time in order to make sure that we have the right amount of capacity and safe, secure shelters with all the things that the children need.
HH: So Deputy Secretary, when a child is apprehended and separated either from a parent or from whomever they came over the border with, who decides where they go? How does that happen?
EH: Well, DHS, Department of Homeland Security, sends them to HHS when they decide about how old the child is. You know, in some cases, obviously, at the top end of the spectrum, you have to make a decision about whether it’s a child or whether it’s an adult, whether a child is, belongs in an HHS shelter or not. So DHS refers them to HHS, and then we take it from there.
HH: What’s the mean refers them? Does a DHS person call up a particular number and say come pick up this kid?
EH: Yeah, the DHS works closely with our people to make sure that they transition the children into one of our shelters, yes. So there’s cooperation across…
HH: And if these 100-plus shelters…
EH: …across, yeah, so there’s cooperation across our departments for that.
HH: How big are the shelters? From what range to what range? How many children…
EH: The shelters can be, the shelters can be relatively small up to over a thousand. And it’s, you know, there’s sort of two to three children per room in most cases…
HH: A thousand?
EH: Yeah, there can be over a thousand in a single facility.
HH: Wow. Are these…
EH: Sort of a large facility.
HH: Where’s the largest facility?
EH: I think Florida is where a facility is of this kind.
HH: Are these veteran caregivers? Have they been vetted completely?
EH: Yeah, these are caregivers who have been in the system, really, for years in most cases. So the care providers are usually established entities that care for the children. So yeah.
EH: And this, this program’s been going on for years. It’s just the size and scale of it has, it has enlarged as there’s been a larger influx of unaccompanied alien children.
HH: Now immediately in my mind, I get image of Dickensian workhouses, right? I don’t know what these places are like. I assume you’re using Catholic Charities, Salvation Army. Am I right about that?
EH: Yeah, so these are established, these are established care providers, yes. And so they don’t, they’re not actually employed. These are not workhouses of any kind.
HH: Oh, I know.
EH: So they’re not actually employed of any kind. And so, and there are even classes that are run inside the shelters so that the kids continue to get educated and you know, everything is taken care of. I mean, the way it has been presented to me is that it’s something like college dormitories. But that’s how it was characterized to me.
HH: Has this become a priority to understand, audit and improve the situation in which these children are housed?
EH: In terms of whether the kids are being kept safe and whether they’re fed and cared for, I think that, we pay attention to all the time. The fundamental issue here, again, is the immigration system that has flaws in it that go right to the heart of the system and has resulted in this follow on effect on these children. This is a system that the President has been front and center on since the very beginning, the fact that we have an immigration system that is broken with regard to these, this influx of this population.
HH: Well, I agree with that, but let me close…
EH: This has to be fundamentally addressed.
HH: I agree, and I want the border barrier built. But if we’ve got thousands and thousands of children, I think it’s got to be a priority when they enter into the care of the United States that those children are housed, cared for, educated and especially protected right up until the age they are 18, at least on a level that we do, and sometimes it’s horrible in the social services of the United States. Is that a priority within the Department for you and Secretary Azar to make sure that those children who are actually in your care, they’re in your care, are taken care of?
EH: Absolutely. So we are focused on making sure that these kids are taken care of. That is, that is our responsibility. We are going to follow our responsibilities. The President wants us to do it. The Secretary wants us to do it. That is what we’re going to do. But the fact that there are so many of these children, tens of thousands of them in the system, speaks to a problem that has to be addressed.
HH: Last question. How many do we have in the system?
EH: We, right now, we have in the system somewhere around about 10,000.
HH: 10,000 children who are in the care of HHS.
EH: Yes, who are in the system, and over 100,000 over the previous few years have been released into the United States through this program under the previous administration and currently.
HH: So 10,000 in custodial care, 100,000 released to family members and sponsors?
EH: Yes. Yeah, a vast majority which are family members, parents or other close family members. So, but we have somewhere around 10,000 now.
HH: Deputy Secretary, I appreciate the facts. Please keep coming back. That’s exactly what I needed to hear. I appreciate it, Eric Hargan, Deputy Secretary of HHS.
EH: Thank you, Hugh, appreciate it.
End of interview.