The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has spent more than $13 billion sponsoring unaccompanied minors at the United States border since 2012, according to recent reporting from OpenTheBooks.com. This staggering figure is even worse in the context of a shocking February report from The New York Times, which revealed that while HHS follows up with minors one month after their sponsor placements, the department has been unable to get ahold of at least 85,000 children in just the past two years.
Unaccompanied children are defined by the ORR as those under the age of 18 with “no lawful immigration status in the United States” and no parent or legal guardian to “provide care and physical custody.” The Unaccompanied Children (UC) program places minors attempting to enter the U.S. with state-licensed sponsors in an attempt to avoid the high risk of exploitation children face in Mexican border towns.
This year, the ORR spent $2.7 billion to sponsor unaccompanied minors at a rate of $18,000 per child. For reference, the cost to educate per student in Texas, where most of the UC program spending occurs, is $9,871.
Recent reports show the ORR losing track of some children as quickly as one month after placement. ORR policy is to call a child at their placement to ensure their well-being after a month, but over the last two years, the agency failed to reach more than 85,000 children.
At their sponsorships across the country, many unaccompanied children across the country are “part of a new economy of exploitation,” overworked to “exhaustion,” and “juggle classes and heavy workloads” or “will not be enrolled in school,” according to the Times.
Under pressure to send money to their families, unaccompanied children are “often  in debt” to the same sponsors who have been found and vetted by the ORR with taxpayer dollars.
Due to the sheer number of incoming children, the HHS hires child welfare agencies to track down “some minors who are deemed to be at high risk. But caseworkers at those agencies said that HHS regularly ignored obvious signs of labor exploitation.”
Recently HHS has faced pressure from a Florida grand jury and the HHS Inspector General, both of which raised concerns about the mistreatment of unaccompanied children at the border. Further, an IG report challenged HHS employee vetting processes, while the grand jury concluded the department was “facilitating the forced migration, sale, and abuse of foreign children.”
The department’s response? In March, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said he was “unfamiliar” with the reported statistics of missing children and that their “authorities end” when a sponsor is found.
At the time of writing, the HHS Administration for Children and Families has not responded to a request for comment regarding their efforts to find these children or remove abusive sponsors from their system.