Unaccompanied Alien Children:

Actions Needed to Ensure Children Receive Required Care in DHS Custody

GAO-15-521: Published: Jul 14, 2015. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2015.

Multimedia:

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Rebecca Gambler
(202) 512-8777
gamblerr@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has issued policies and procedures to evaluate, or screen, unaccompanied alien children (UAC)—those under 18 years old with no lawful immigration status and no parent or legal guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody—as required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). However, CBP's Border Patrol agents and Office of Field Operations (OFO) officers who screen UAC have not consistently applied the required screening criteria or documented the rationales for decisions resulting from screening. Specifically, under TVPRA, DHS is to transfer UAC to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but may allow UAC from Canada and Mexico to return to their home countries, that is, to be repatriated, if DHS determines that UAC (1) are not victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons, (2) are not at risk of trafficking upon return, (3) do not have a fear of returning due to a credible fear of persecution, and (4) are able to make an independent decision about returning. GAO found that agents made inconsistent screening decisions, had varying levels of awareness about how they were to assess certain screening criteria, and did not consistently document the rationales for their decisions. For example, CBP policy states that UAC under age 14 are presumed generally unable to make an independent decision, but GAO's analysis of CBP data and a random sample of case files from fiscal year 2014 found that CBP repatriated about 93 percent of Mexican UAC under age 14 from fiscal years 2009 through 2014 without documenting the basis for decisions. Providing guidance on how CBP agents and officers are to assess against UAC screening criteria could better position CBP to meet legal screening requirements, and ensuring that agents document the rationales for decisions would better position CBP to review the appropriateness of these decisions.

DHS has policies in place to implement UAC care requirements, such as providing meals, and GAO's observations and interviews at 15 CBP facilities indicate that CBP generally provided care consistent with these policies at the time of GAO's visits. However, DHS does not collect complete and reliable data on care provided to UAC or the length of time UAC are in DHS custody. GAO analyzed available data on care provided to nearly 56,000 UAC apprehended by Border Patrol in fiscal year 2014 and found that agents documented 14 of 20 possible care actions for fewer than half of the UAC (the remaining 6 actions were documented for more than 50 percent of the UAC). Also, OFO has a database to record UAC care, but officers at most ports of entry do not do so. Developing and implementing processes to help ensure agents and officers record UAC care actions would provide greater assurance that DHS is meeting its care and custody requirements. Further, the interagency process to refer and transfer UAC from DHS to HHS is inefficient and vulnerable to errors because it relies on e-mails and manual data entry, and documented standard procedures, including defined roles and responsibilities, do not exist. DHS and HHS have experienced errors, such as assigning a child to two shelters at once, and holding an empty bed for 14 days at a shelter while HHS officials had placed the child elsewhere. Jointly developing a documented interagency process with defined roles and responsibilities could better position DHS and HHS to have a more efficient and effective process to refer, transfer, and place UAC in shelters.

Why GAO Did This Study

From fiscal years 2009 through 2014, DHS apprehended more than 200,000 UAC, and the number of UAC apprehended in fiscal year 2014 (about 74,000) was more than four times larger than that for fiscal year 2011 (about 17,000). On the journey to the United States, many UAC have traveled thousands of miles under dangerous conditions.

The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 included a provision for GAO to, among other things, review how DHS cares for UAC. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which DHS has developed policies and procedures to (1) screen all UAC as required and (2) care for all UAC as required. GAO reviewed TVPRA and other legal requirements, DHS policies for screening and caring for UAC, fiscal year 2009 through 2014 apprehension data on UAC, and 2014 Border Patrol UAC care data. GAO also randomly sampled and analyzed case files of Mexican UAC whom Border Patrol apprehended in fiscal year 2014. GAO interviewed DHS and HHS officials in Washington, D.C., and at Border Patrol and OFO facilities in Arizona, California, and Texas selected on the basis of UAC apprehension data.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS, among other things, provide guidance on how agents and officers are to apply UAC screening criteria, ensure that screening decisions are documented, develop processes to record reliable data on UAC care, and document the interagency process to transfer UAC from DHS to HHS. DHS concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Office of Field Operations (OFO) within U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, conducted a "Train-the-Trainer" conference in August 2015 that focused on juvenile and unaccompanied alien children (UAC). The conference, among other things, addressed screening requirements for UAC consistent with TVPRA. CBP officers who received this additional training were then responsible for training other officers who process UAC at the ports of entry. According to CBP, while the conference was comprehensive, it did not fully encompass CBP's needs. Therefore, as of December 2015, OFO and CBP's Office of Chief Counsel are developing another Train-the-Trainer course for officers responsible for implementing TVPRA requirements at all CBP ports of entry. In June 2016, CBP reported that OFO, Office of Chief Counsel, and a headquarters-level working group on UAC issues are finalizing a revised Form CB-93 and with that are developing a detailed, relevant Train-the-Trainer course for officers responsible for TVPRA at all CBP ports of entry. CBP estimates that this course will be developed and begin running by September 30, 2016. According to CBP officials, those officers trained at the Train-the-Trainer course will then be required to return to their respective ports of entry and train all CBP officers who work in the passenger environment. To fully address this recommendation, CBP needs to ensure that OFO officers at airports who have substantive contact with UAC complete the TVPRA training.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DHS complies with TVPRA requirements for training, screening, and transferring UAC to HHS, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to develop and implement TVPRA training for OFO officers at airports who have substantive contact with UAC.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2015, CBP officials stated that CBP formed a working group in headquarters with representatives from the department's Office of Policy and Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to examine the screening process for UAC. In addition, CBP officials noted that CBP is in the process of convening a similar group in the field. According to CBP officials, the working group meets weekly and is coordinating with nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, among others. As of June 30, 2016, CBP reported that CBP's Office of Field Operations (OFO) and U.S. Border Patrol (BP) have finalized and routed the Form CBP-93 to the OFO Executive Assistant Commissioner and United States Border Patrol Chief for final approval. To fully address this recommendation, CBP should revise the Form 93 to include indicators or questions that CBP officers and Border Patrol agents should ask UAC relative to their ability to make an independent decision and regarding the potential risk of the UAC being trafficked if returned to their country of nationality or last habitual residence.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DHS complies with TVPRA requirements for training, screening, and transferring UAC to HHS, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to revise the Form 93 to include indicators or questions that agents and officers should ask UAC to better assess (1) a child's ability to make an independent decision to withdraw his or her application for admission to the United States and (2) credible evidence of the child's risk of being trafficked if returned to his or her country of nationality or last habitual residence.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of our report, DHS indicated that CBP's U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) and Office of Field Operations (OFO) would issue further guidance to agents and officers emphasizing TVPRA transfer procedures for Mexican UAC who have fear of returning to Mexico owing to a credible fear of persecution. In September 2015, CBP reported that USBP and OFO estimated implementing this additional guidance by the end of calendar year 2015. In January 2016, CBP reported to GAO that, since June 2015, a headquarters level working group has been reviewing CBP's screening process for UAC. According to CBP officials, the activities of this working group will influence the guidance that will be deployed to Border Patrol agents and OFO officers and that USBP and OFO will be working together to develop additional guidance to the field by September 2016. To fully address this recommendation, CBP should develop and implement guidance to Border Patrol agents and OFO officers on how to implement the TVPRA criteria.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DHS complies with TVPRA requirements for training, screening, and transferring UAC to HHS, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to provide guidance to Border Patrol agents and OFO officers that clarifies how they are to implement the TVPRA requirement to transfer to HHS all Mexican UAC who have fear of returning to Mexico owing to a credible fear of persecution.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In commenting on a draft of our report, DHS indicated that CBP's U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) and Office of Field Operations (OFO) would issue further guidance to agents and officers emphasizing TVPRA transfer procedures for UAC who are nationals or habitual residents of Canada or Mexico and who are victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons. In September 2015, CBP reported that USBP and OFO estimated implementing this additional guidance by the end of calendar year 2015. In January 2016, CBP reported to GAO that, since June 2015, a headquarters level working group has been reviewing CBP's screening process for UAC. According to CBP officials, the activities of this working group will influence the guidance that will be deployed to Border Patrol agents and OFO officers and that USBP and OFO will be working together to develop additional guidance to the field by September 2016. To fully address this recommendation, CBP should develop and implement guidance to Border Patrol agents and OFO officers on how to implement the TVPRA criteria.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DHS complies with TVPRA requirements for training, screening, and transferring UAC to HHS, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to develop and implement guidance on how Border Patrol agents and OFO officers are to implement the TVPRA requirement to transfer to HHS all Canadian and Mexican UAC who are victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2015, CBP officials reported that an internal working group charged with assessing UAC screening procedures is considering issues related to independent decision-making and appropriate documentation as it develops a revised screening tool. As of June 30, 2016, CBP reported that CBP's Office of Field Operations (OFO) and U.S. Border Patrol (BP) have finalized and routed a revised Form CBP-93 to the OFO Executive Assistant Commissioner and United States Border Patrol Chief for final approval. To fully address this recommendation, CBP should ensure that Border Patrol agents document the basis for their decisions when assessing screening criteria related to (1) an unaccompanied alien child's ability to make an independent decision to withdraw his or her application for admission to the United States, and (2) whether UAC are victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DHS complies with TVPRA requirements for training, screening, and transferring UAC to HHS, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ensure that Border Patrol agents document the basis for their decisions when assessing screening criteria related to (1) an unaccompanied alien child's ability to make an independent decision to withdraw his or her application for admission to the United States, and (2) whether UAC are victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: On July 1, 2015, the Assistant Commissioner for Field Operations disseminated a memorandum to all OFO Field Office Directors regarding the mandatory annual UAC training requirement. The Assistant Commissioner directed all Field Offices to ensure that officers completed the required training by December 31, 2015 (the memo also specified which officers are required to complete the training). On July 31, 2015, the Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol disseminated a memorandum to all Chief Patrol Agents and Directorate Chiefs for dissemination to all uniformed personnel, including supervisors, regarding the mandatory annual UAC training requirement. CBP documentation indicates that CBP implemented a new designated training system on July 13, 2015, through which online training courses are offered to all CBP employees. As of December 2015, according to CBP, the new Performance and Learning Management System (PALMS) did not have the capability to produce reports on PALMS courses completed by CBP employees. CBP's Office of Training and Development (OTD), which manages PALMS, is working with the PALMS vendor to add a feature to the system that will produce cumulative reports on completed courses. Once this feature is available, CBP officials stated that training personnel will be better positioned to assess, monitor, and improve training completion rates. As of May 2016, OTD officials stated that they are still working with the PALMS vendor to overcome obstacles in the system to ensure that CBP offices can run reports of complete/incomplete trainings. OTD officials stated that they are conducting field testing on this reporting function, which they initially expected to be delivered to users in August 2015 when PALMS was released. OTD officials estimated that the field testing would be completed by the fall of 2016. Thus, in early 2017, CBP intends to provide GAO with documentation on course completions for calendar year 2016. To fully address this recommendation, Border Patrol and OFO should ensure that all required personnel have completed the annual training, as required.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that DHS complies with TVPRA requirements for training, screening, and transferring UAC to HHS, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to determine which agents and officers who have substantive contact with UAC, complete the annual UAC training, and ensure that they do so, as required.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2015, we reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had policies in place to implement care requirements, such as providing meals, for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) in its custody; however, DHS did not collect complete and reliable data on care provided to UAC. In particular, we reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Office of Field Operations (OFO) had an automated database to record UAC care, but OFO officers at most ports of entry did not do so. Thus, we recommended that CBP require OFO officers to record care provided to UAC in an automated manner. In response, in October 2015, OFO issued a muster and memorandum requiring officers to record information in its automated system, such as when UAC received food and medical care. In addition, OFO provided an instructional briefing to OFO officers on entering data in its automated system related to care provided to UAC. Further, OFO enhanced its automated system to record care provided to UAC by capturing and tracking data at a transactional and aggregate level, and adding a control in the system to make certain custody fields mandatory. As a result, OFO has required its officers to record care provided to UAC in its automated system and has implemented system controls to help ensure that this information is recorded. Requiring OFO officers to record UAC care actions should help provide greater assurance that DHS is meeting its care and custody requirements.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that CBP has complete and reliable data needed to ensure compliance with care requirements under the Flores Agreement and CBP policies, the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection should require that OFO officers record care provided to UAC in an automated manner.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: On July 20, 2015, U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) headquarters reiterated to field personnel in an email that Border Patrol agents were required to use USBP's automated system to record the custodial actions and transportation of all detainees, including unaccompanied alien children (UAC). USBP also required that each Border Patrol Sector and Station read and initial receipt of this email to acknowledge that each station understood this requirement. In addition, USBP has taken steps to modify its automated system to eliminate errors such as those noted in our report. In particular, USBP also created a function in its automated system to provide agents with the capability to see any outstanding care actions that their station needs to perform, including welfare checks and meals. This function will also alert agents when UAC are in Border Patrol custody for greater than 72 hours. Further, as of January 2016, USBP is working with CBP's Management Inspections Division (MID) to develop new internal controls to ensure that agents are recording care actions, as required, including conducting internal audits of the data in the automated system. According to USBP officials, CBP's MID will be performing audits throughout 2016. To fully address this recommendation, it will be important that CBP MID's and USBP's internal audits indicate that Border Patrol agents are generally complying with the requirement to record care provided to UAC in Border Patrol's automated system, as required.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that CBP has complete and reliable data needed to ensure compliance with care requirements under the Flores Agreement and CBP policies, the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection should ensure that Border Patrol agents record care provided to UAC in Border Patrol's automated system, as required.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2015, we reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could not accurately determine how long unaccompanied alien children (UAC) were in custody with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Office of Field Operations (OFO) because OFO did not collect complete and reliable information on the dates and times during which UAC came into and left its custody. Specifically, we reported that OFO's data system automatically generated a book-in date and time when officers entered a UAC apprehension in the system, but OFO officials told us that their system did not have a field to record when UAC left OFO custody. OFO had a "time out" field in its system, but officers were not required to use it. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security require OFO officers to record data in their automated system when UAC left OFO custody in order to track the length of time UAC were in OFO custody. In response, in December 2015, OFO updated the "time out" feature in its system, so that the "time out" is automatically populated with a time stamp when an action takes place, such as when UAC are released or transported from OFO custody. In addition, according to CBP officials, any subsequent edits to the "time out" recorded by the time stamp must be approved by a supervisor at the port of entry. Requiring officers to accurately record time-in and time-out should help ensure that OFO has data necessary to determine UAC's time in custody.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DHS has complete and reliable data needed to ensure compliance with the UAC time-in-custody requirement under TVPRA and for required reports on UAC time in custody under the Flores Agreement, the Secretary of Homeland Security should require OFO officers to record data in their automated system when UAC leave OFO custody in order to track the length of time UAC are in OFO custody.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: In a July 23, 2015 memo, ICE's Assistant Director for Custody Management, with concurrence from the Acting Assistant Director for Field Operations, provided instructions to all ICE Field Office Directors, Deputy Field Office Directors, and Field Office Juvenile Coordinators (FOJCs) with instructions for processing juveniles, including unaccompanied alien children (UAC). The memo stated that FOJCs or assigned officers must immediately book UAC into ICE's automated system upon the UAC's transfer into ICE's custody (including ICE transportation contractors). The instructions state that no more than 4 hours may elapse without recording the UAC's time in ICE custody. Further, the instructions stated that when ICE transfers UAC to a new location, that FOJCs, or other assigned officers, must also ensure that ICE's automated system is updated to reflect the exact location of the transfer. According to ICE, these instructions are to be included in a juvenile processing handbook that will provide detailed instructions for officers in processing and managing juvenile cases. ICE expects to complete this handbook by June 30, 2016. To fully implement our recommendation, ICE should require that officers record accurate and reliable data (date and time) in their automated system when UAC leave ICE custody.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DHS has complete and reliable data needed to ensure compliance with the UAC time-in-custody requirement under TVPRA and for required reports on UAC time in custody under the Flores Agreement, the Secretary of Homeland Security should require ICE officers to record accurate and reliable data in their automated system when UAC leave ICE custody in order to track the length of time UAC are in ICE custody.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  11. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2015, DHS stated that the department was collaborating with HHS on finalizing a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) regarding UAC procedures. According to DHS, the MOA is meant to provide a framework for interagency coordination on the responsibilities of the parties in coordinating and establishing procedures, shared goals, and interagency cooperation with respect to UAC. In February 2016, DHS and HHS finalized the MOA. The MOA states that DHS and HHS agree to establish a Joint Concept of Operations (JCO) that should be completed no later than one year following the signing of the MOA. According to the MOA, the JCO should include, among other things, standard protocols for consistent interagency cooperation on the care, processing, and transport of UAC during both steady state operations, as well as in the event the number of UAC exceeds the standard capabilities of the departments to process, transport, and/or shelter with existing resources. To fully address the recommendation, DHS and HHS will need to ensure that the JCO, once finalized and implemented, includes a documented interagency process with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, as well as procedures to disseminate placement decisions, for all agencies involved in the referral and placement of UAC in HHS shelters.

    Recommendation: To increase the efficiency and improve the accuracy of the interagency UAC referral and placement process, the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services should jointly develop and implement a documented interagency process with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, as well as procedures to disseminate placement decisions, for all agencies involved in the referral and placement of UAC in HHS shelters.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2015, DHS stated that the department was collaborating with HHS on finalizing a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) regarding UAC procedures. According to DHS, the MOA is meant to provide a framework for interagency coordination on the responsibilities of the parties in coordinating and establishing procedures, shared goals, and interagency cooperation with respect to UAC. In February 2016, DHS and HHS finalized the MOA. The MOA states that DHS and HHS agree to establish a Joint Concept of Operations (JCO) that should be completed no later than one year following the signing of the MOA. According to the MOA, the JCO should include, among other things, standard protocols for consistent interagency cooperation on the care, processing, and transport of UAC during both steady state operations, as well as in the event the number of UAC exceeds the standard capabilities of the departments to process, transport, and/or shelter with existing resources. To fully address the recommendation, DHS and HHS will need to ensure that the JCO, once finalized and implemented, includes a documented interagency process with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, as well as procedures to disseminate placement decisions, for all agencies involved in the referral and placement of UAC in HHS shelters.

    Recommendation: To increase the efficiency and improve the accuracy of the interagency UAC referral and placement process, the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services should jointly develop and implement a documented interagency process with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, as well as procedures to disseminate placement decisions, for all agencies involved in the referral and placement of UAC in HHS shelters.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  13. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2015, we reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had entered into local arrangements with Mexican consulates to ensure the safe and humane repatriation of Mexican nationals, including unaccompanied alien children (UAC). However, the arrangements did not reflect minimum Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) requirements for agreements with Mexico with respect to the repatriation of UAC. These agreements are to be designed to protect children from severe forms of trafficking in persons and must, at minimum, provide that (1) no child shall be returned unless to appropriate officials, including child welfare officials where available; (2) no child shall be returned outside of reasonable business hours; and (3) border personnel of countries who are parties to the agreements are to be trained in the terms of the agreements. We found that fewer than one-third of the local repatriation arrangements contained provisions directing that no UAC be returned unless to appropriate employees or officials. Further, in terms of prohibiting the return of UAC outside of reasonable business hours, fewer than half of arrangements identified the hours during which UAC could be returned to Mexico. Last, none of the arrangements addressed the requirement that border personnel be trained in the terms of the repatriation arrangements. We recommended that DHS, in coordination with the Secretary of State, ensure that TVPRA requirements for these agreements are reflected in local repatriation arrangements. In response, as part of ongoing updates of the arrangements, DHS and the Government of Mexico finalized local repatriation arrangements covering the entire the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2016. On the basis of our analysis of the new arrangements, we found that they all reflected the minimum TVPRA requirements. As a result, DHS should be able to better ensure that Mexican children are repatriated safely.

    Recommendation: To ensure that minimum legislative requirements to protect UAC from severe forms of trafficking in persons are in repatriation agreements with Mexico and are met, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of State, should ensure that TVPRA requirements for these agreements are reflected in local repatriation arrangements as DHS renegotiates these arrangements with Mexico.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Aug 15, 2016

Jul 21, 2016

Jul 12, 2016

Jul 7, 2016

Jun 14, 2016

Jun 7, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here