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Contrary to what DeSantis said, immigration officials screen children as part of the Unaccompanied Alien Children process, to determine if they are victims of trafficking and check if they have a criminal record.
The federal government also provides general information about the number of children in its care and how many eventually settle in each state. However, even advocates of the program have asked for more information regarding the government’s oversight of unaccompanied children.
In a conference with religious and community leaders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized President Joe Biden for "failed border policies." DeSantis said that a federal program that deals with unaccompanied minors who arrive at the border was especially problematic.
"The current (Unaccompanied Alien Children) process smuggles in illegal immigrants from many different countries with no vetting, no transparency, and no consideration for child and public safety," DeSantis said in a news conference on Feb. 7 in Miami.
His claim that the program had no vetting or transparency sounded at odds with what we know about the process, so we decided to put his comments on the Truth-O-Meter.
We found that immigration officials do, in fact, screen children to determine if they are victims of trafficking and check if they have a criminal record. The federal government also provides general information to the public about the number of children in its care and how many eventually settle in each state.
Long before Biden became president, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 established the unaccompanied children’s program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address a growing number of migrant children arriving in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian.
The law provides protection to these minors and often allows them to stay in the United States.
In recent years, most of these children have arrived at the southwest border and surrendered to Border Patrol agents. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials then screen the children to determine if they pose a safety threat or have a viable immigration case.
CBP then transfers the children to the custody of another non-immigration agency, the Office of Refugee Resettlement. That office then tries to place the children with sponsors in the U.S. It also conducts criminal checks on all potential sponsors to ensure they’re not a threat to the minors’ safety.
"The Office of Refugee Resettlement is a child welfare agency, not a law enforcement agency," an HHS spokesperson told PolitiFact. "We play no role in the processing of unaccompanied children prior to their referral to HHS custody."
In fiscal year 2021, the number of unaccompanied children referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement ballooned to 122,731, the largest number in the program’s history.
Experts and immigration authorities rejected DeSantis’ claim that unaccompanied children are not vetted.
CBP told PolitiFact that it gathers biometric data and biographical information, such as fingerprints and birth certificates, to uncover any criminal history.
Children with criminal histories are deemed inadmissible and expelled by immigration authorities — that was the case for fewer than 2% of the children encountered in fiscal year 2021, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement said that if a child sent to its custody is later discovered to have a criminal background or demonstrates violent behavior, the child may be placed in a secure facility and will stay there unless it is determined they no longer pose a threat to others.
Children with no criminal histories are placed in nonprofit-run shelters until sponsors take them into their custody.
When we asked DeSantis’ office about his "no vetting" claim, his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, cited the 2021 arrest of a Honduran national suspected of murdering a Jacksonville resident. But we could not independently verify whether that person entered the country as an unaccompanied minor.
The now-24-year-old suspect, Yery Noel Medina Ulloa, was arrested and booked under a false name and age — Reynel Hernandez, 17 years old, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office police report. (He was 23 at the time of his arrest.)
The police report did not say when Medina Ulloa entered the country, whether he misrepresented himself as an unaccompanied minor to immigration authorities, or whether he had a criminal record that went undetected by federal officials.
PolitiFact asked CBP, HHS and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office about Medina Ulloa’s immigration history but did not get a response.
CBP in November said that there had been cases of people abusing the unaccompanied minor process. Transnational criminal organizations, for example, try to recruit, exploit and convince people to pose as unaccompanied minors as they are smuggled into the United States.
In fiscal year 2021, which began in October 2020 during the Trump administration, Border Patrol agents in the El Paso, Texas, sector encountered 559 adults posing as unaccompanied children, according to CBP. The agency said that "a proactive approach" by Border Patrol agents led to a "substantial increase in the detection" of people who fraudulently pose as unaccompanied minors.
Still, this does not support DeSantis’ claim of no vetting or transparency.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, under the Trump administration, issued a public health order allowing Border Patrol agents to rapidly expel migrants crossing the southwest border.
Unaccompanied children were not excluded from the initial order and were turned away. Though this program is still in effect, Biden has now exempted children from expulsion.
The Biden administration has also scrapped a Trump-era proposal that would have authorized the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to require biometric data, including DNA and facial images, from immigrants.
While DeSantis blamed the growing number of unaccompanied children on Biden’s immigration policies, experts cited a combination of factors driving increases, including pandemic-torn economies and labor demand.
"Broadly, I don’t see the Biden administration doing anything radically different than the pre-Trump administrations," said David Kyle, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.
As for transparency, HHS provides some broad information on unaccompanied minors.
In 2021, DeSantis' office requested information that HHS does not release to the public out of privacy and safety concerns, such as the children’s names and the cities where they settled with sponsors.
Pushaw cited this as an example of the program’s inadequate transparency, contending that the state should be notified of the children’s arrival in advance.
The HHS annually releases state-by-state data on how many unaccompanied children are released to sponsors. In 2021, more than 11,000 unaccompanied children were released to sponsors in Florida. Only Texas received more children.
It is worth noting that advocacy groups have criticized the HHS for not providing more information regarding the department’s monitoring and oversight of facilities that house unaccompanied children.
"Child protection is of utmost importance so children’s privacy cannot be revealed to the public," said Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids In Need of Defense, an advocacy group for unaccompanied migrant and refugee children in the U.S. "But the agency can and should be more transparent about the steps they take to monitor and correct any deficiencies they see in the shelters housing children."
The U.S. government lost contact with thousands of children released from its custody in 2021, Axios reported. About 1 in 3 calls made to sponsors between January and May of last year went unanswered.
"The transparency is limited, but we cannot say no transparency, no vetting, no consideration for child or public safety," said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
DeSantis said the current unaccompanied children process has "no vetting, no transparency."
But young people who enter federal custody undergo security screening by immigration officials. The Office of Refugee Resettlement reviews the background and biographical information of children in its custody. It also conducts a criminal check on all potential sponsors to ensure they’re not a threat to the minor’s safety.
HHS doesn’t release identifying data — such as the names of children in its custody — citing security and privacy, but releases broad data, such as the number of children in its facilities. Advocates have asked for more transparency to ensure the well-being of minors.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Ron DeSantis, news release, Feb. 7, 2022
Ron DeSantis, Legislative proposal on Biden Border Policy, Dec. 10, 2021
Office of Refugee Settlement, Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Unaccompanied Alien Children: A Processing Flow Chart
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Unaccompanied Children Released to Sponsors by State, accessed in 2021
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Unaccompanied Children (UC) Program fact sheet
Congress, Summary of William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, El Paso Sector Border Patrol Shows Increase in Migrant Adults Posing as Unaccompanied Children, accessed on Nov. 11, 2021
Arrest and booking report of Yery Noel Medina Ulloa
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Act of 2002
Congressional Research Service Report, Unaccompanied Alien Children: An Overview, updated Sept. 2021
Axios, Government can't reach one-in-three released migrant kids, Sept. 1, 2021
Federal Register, Collection and Use of Biometrics by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Sept. 11, 2020
U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, order suspending introduction of certain persons from countries where a communicable disease exists, Mar. 20, 2020
Email interview with Christina Pushaw, DeSantis press secretary, Feb. 14, 2022
Email interview with Tammy Melvin, spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Feb. 15, 2022
Email interview with Jorge Silva, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Human Services, Feb. 15, 2022
Email interview with David Kyle, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, Feb. 14, 2022
Phone interview with Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, Feb. 14, 2022
Phone interview with Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids In Need of Defense, Feb. 14, 2022
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