HOUSTON (AP) — The Biden administration is not requiring FBI fingerprint background checks of caregivers at its rapidly expanding network of emergency sites to hold thousands of immigrant teenagers, alarming child welfare experts who say the waiver compromises safety.
In the rush to get children out of overcrowded and often unsuitable Border Patrol sites, President Joe Biden’s team is turning to a measure used by previous administrations: tent camps, convention centers and other huge facilities operated by private contractors and funded by U.S. Health and Human Services. In March alone, the Biden administration announced it will open eight new emergency sites across the Southwest adding 15,000 new beds, more than doubling the size of its existing system.
These emergency sites don’t have to be licensed by state authorities or provide the same services as permanent HHS facilities. They also cost far more, an estimated $775 per child per day.
And to staff the sites quickly, the Biden administration has waived vetting procedures intended to protect minors from potential harm.
Staff and volunteers directly caring for children at new emergency sites don’t have to undergo FBI fingerprint checks, which use criminal databases not accessible to the public and can overcome someone changing their name or using a false identity.
HHS issued a statement Friday saying that direct care staff and volunteers “must pass public record criminal background checks.” Public records checks generally take less time but are reliant on the subject providing correct information.
The agency says those giving direct care are supervised by federal employees or others who have passed fingerprint-based background checks. “In the Emergency Intake Sites, HHS is implementing the standards of care used for children in an emergency response setting,” the agency said.
During former President Donald Trump’s administration, HHS for months did not ensure FBI fingerprint checks or child welfare screenings were done for workers at a large camp in Tornillo, Texas. An Associated Press investigation in 2018 also found staff at another camp at Homestead, Florida, were not given routine screenings to rule out allegations of child abuse or neglect.
HHS’ inspector general warned then that FBI fingerprint checks “provide a unique safeguard” over most commercial background checks that search a person’s name.
Laura Nodolf, the district attorney in Midland, Texas, where HHS opened an emergency site this month, said that without fingerprint checks, “we truly do not know who the individual is who is providing direct care.”
“That’s placing the children under care of HHS in the path, potentially, of a sex offender,” Nodolf said. “They are putting these children in a position of becoming potential victims.”
Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist who is executive director of the immigration advocacy group Every Last One, noted that HHS requires fingerprint checks of relatives who seek to take in children as part of a vetting process that takes more than 30 days on average.
“Failure to check fingerprints of frontline facility staff exposes vulnerable migrant children to a significant danger of physical and sexual abuse,” she said.
The Biden administration has 18,000 children and teenagers in its custody, a figure that has risen almost daily over the last several weeks. While Biden continues to expel most adults and many families crossing the border, he has declined to reinstate expulsions of unaccompanied immigrant children, which stopped last year after a now-stayed federal court order.