Federal officials often did not screen migrant center workers at US-Mexico border: HHS watchdog

Federal officials often did not screen migrant center workers at US-Mexico border: HHS watchdog

Workers were not given fingerprint background checks, screened for child abuse or checked against sex offender registry

By Darren Lyn

HOUSTON, US (AA) - The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) failed to conduct required background checks on its workers at emergency holding centers for migrant children who crossed the US-Mexico border alone during a surge of immigration in 2021, according to a report released Thursday by the agency's internal watchdog.

The HHS Inspector General's report, based on a sampling of its border workforce, found that 200 employees were not given background checks for child abuse or neglect versus 29 who were checked. Of those 29 background checks, however, 20 of them were not conducted in a "timely manner."

The investigation also revealed that 174 workers did not have FBI fingerprint background checks compared to 55 who were fingerprinted, but 25 of those checks were not done in a "timely manner."

Checks against the US Justice Department's sex offender registry were not conducted on 42 workers versus 36 who were checked, although 11 of those sex offender checks were also not done in a “timely manner.”

Additionally, the HHS report showed that criminal background checks based on publicly available records were conducted on far less than half of all new hires.

The review focused on 10 of 14 contracted emergency intake sites in both Texas and California, in which the HHS often failed to perform required checks on its employees.

The department received more than 122,000 migrant children in the 2021 budget year compared to about 19,000 the previous year, according to the report.

"The historic influx was compounded by the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and procedures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which reduced standard bed capacity by up to 40 percent," said HHS Assistant Secretary for Children and Families January Contreras in a letter accompanying the review.

HHS expanded holding capacity to 13,500 beds by the spring of 2021, according to the report, but was unprepared for increased immigration flows which hit a record in March 2021 when nearly 19,000 migrants were taken into custody. That massive surge forced the government to open up the emergency shelters.

The number of migrants being taken into custody has declined significantly since that peak influx. In March 2023, the latest publicly available data showed that about 12,500 migrants were taken into custody at the US-Mexico border.

The report concluded that the department's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) "must address the shortcomings we identified to ensure that similar issues do not recur during future influxes."

"ORR will always put the best interests of children first in every decision made, especially when weighing the need to transfer children out of DHS custody, the use of background check waivers during emergency operations, and the types of required background checks," said Contreras.

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