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Office Of Refugee Resettlement Struggling To House Migrant Children Separated From Parents


The Trump administration's practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border has brought attention to a little-known government agency. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for finding homes for unaccompanied migrant children, the ones who attempt to enter the country without their parents. Now the agency has to shelter the ones the government has taken from their families. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The government says more than 10,000 children are now in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The ORR is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and in the Obama administration, it was overseen by Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg. Now with the Migration Policy Institute, Greenberg says there is a careful process to determine how to place unaccompanied children, most of whom come here from three countries - Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

MARK GREENBERG: ORR initially seeks to determine if the child has a parent in this country and, if not a parent, a close relative and, if not a close relative, a more distant relative or a family friend.

NAYLOR: Until a sponsor is found, ORR relies on a network of 100 shelters in 14 states to house the children. A Homeland Security spokesman said today that nearly 2,000 minors were separated from their parents between April 19 and the end of May under the administration's new zero-tolerance policy. Greenberg says those separations make ORR's job harder.

GREENBERG: It will be much more difficult to find placements for them in the community because their parents are being incarcerated or otherwise held.

NAYLOR: Another new policy will make it even more difficult to reunite children with their families. The Trump administration is now fingerprinting family members wishing to take in the unaccompanied children and wants to share other information it has about the children's families with the Department of Homeland Security. ORR did not respond to a request for an interview. Acting HHS Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner outlined the policy in a recent Senate hearing where he was questioned by Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California.


STEVEN WAGNER: We're going to give potential sponsor information to DHS so that they can provide their input based on all of the information they have available about potential sponsors to us. And that's going to improve the quality of our decision-making about the appropriateness of sponsors.

KAMALA HARRIS: Is it your intention that DHS will then enforce immigration laws?

GREENBERG: We have no such intention at the Department Health and Human Services, but they have their job to do.

NAYLOR: Sharing information with DHS, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, will likely mean parents and family members here illegally will not come forward for their children fearing they'll be arrested, meaning longer stays for the children in the ORR shelters. Michelle Brane is director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women's Refugee Commission.

MICHELLE BRANE: That's going to discourage people from coming forward to pick children up and take them into their care. And it may also discourage children from giving all the information that they are aware of to the social workers and the employees who are trying to reunify them. Ultimately what that means is that children will be put into riskier situations, or they may remain in custody for much longer.

NAYLOR: The American Civil Liberties Union agrees, calling on DHS to reverse its plan to adopt the new information-sharing rules and to, quote, "do what is truly in the best interest of children." Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.