Congressman Denied Access to Facility Housing Illegal Immigrant Children

Critics say admin is being opaque and uncooperative on flood of Central American children

Unaccompanied alien children at a holding center in Arizona / AP
July 2, 2014

The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday forbade a U.S. congressman from observing federal facilities in his state where hundreds of illegal immigrant children are currently being held.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R., Okla.) said in a Wednesday news release that HHS staff at a department facility at Fort Sill told him he had to schedule an appointment to see the facilities, which are currently housing up to 1,200 Central American children who recently crossed the southern border illegally.

"There is no excuse for denying a federal representative from Oklahoma access to a federal facility in Oklahoma where unaccompanied children are being held," Bridenstine said in a statement. "Any member of Congress should have the legal authority to visit a federal youth detention facility without waiting three weeks."

Up to 1,400 unaccompanied children between the ages of 12 and 17 are expected to be housed at the Fort Sill facility, according to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.).

President Barack Obama has asked Congress for the authority to quickly deport all children who are not accompanied by an adult.

After the U.S. Border Patrol apprehends such children they are handed over to HHS, which houses them in various immigrant shelters such as the one at Fort Sill.

Given the recent influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC), as they are officially termed, some members of Congress have expressed concern about the federal government’s ability to house and care for them all.

The department has not been forthcoming with legislators who have expressed such concerns, Inhofe said in an emailed statement.

"We have not received information in a timely manner, and the information we do receive is many times inconsistent depending on which government agency is providing it," Inhofe said.

"No one seems to know exactly what is going on at any time, which has made it very difficult for members to do our job to provide needed oversight," he added.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) expressed similar concerns in a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell last month.

"I am deeply concerned with HHS’ lack of transparency and preparation," Sensenbrenner wrote.

"Where is HHS currently housing UACs and for how long?" he asked. "What other sites/locations are currently planned? […] How many immigrants do you plan to accommodate? What do you anticipate to be the final cost of housing UACs to taxpayers?"

Bridenstine also suggested that HHS was not being transparent about its handling of the situation.

He said that he asked a security guard at the Fort Sill facility to speak with a manager. The security guard’s supervisor said the congressman would need to schedule an appointment.

"What are they trying to hide?  Do they not want the children to speak with members of Congress?" he asked.

A statement from HHS’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) said in a statement that the department is working to provide access to the facility "as frequently as possible without disrupting our ability to properly care for the children as part of this humanitarian situation."

The statement noted that ACF has provided 55 elected officials with requested tours of the facility. "We will continue to schedule these tours of temporary shelters on a regular basis with any officials who request them."

Bridenstine was one of 33 House Republicans who signed onto a Wednesday letter asking the president to work with Congress on UAC issues and other immigration policies.

"As Congress considers legislative proposals to ensure our system is reserved for deserving applicants, we urge you to cooperate with Congressional leaders to provide accurate data on the recent surge and work for legislative reforms that ensure the safe repatriation of these minor children to family members in their home countries and provide the commitment necessary to secure our border," they wrote.