The failings of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) were highlighted Thursday during a congressional hearing, including an outright lie concerning the agency’s policy on abortion care for immigrants.
U.S. Sen. Margaret Hassan (D-NH) addressed Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, which like ORR, is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Hassan said she was concerned about Scott Lloyd, the ORR director who has blocked “young women from their constitutionally protected health care and privacy.”
Many of Lloyd’s colleagues have defended him in light of disturbing revelations, including receiving a weekly spreadsheet containing information on every pregnant teen in ORR’s custody. The spreadsheet tracks gestational age and whether the young person has asked for abortion care. Lloyd has traveled to meet with pregnant people in ORR detention centers to coerce them out of accessing abortion care; he’s denied seven young, undocumented women’s requests for abortion—even when the pregnancy resulted from rape, which is a violation of federal law; he has disobeyed court orders to not tell a young woman’s parents about her decision to obtain an abortion, which put her safety at risk; he has ordered that all pregnant people in ORR custody be given anti-abortion counseling; and asked officials to look into “reversing” a medication abortion.
When Hassan asked Wagner if he was aware of Lloyd’s use of spreadsheets to track the pregnancies of young people in ORR custody, Wagner sidestepped the question and cited a 2008 HHS Policy outlining how “serious medical services” that “may threaten the life of” an unaccompanied immigrant child require “heightened ORR involvement.” Despite being safer than giving birth, abortion care is listed in the policy as a serious medical service. Wagner was implying that the policy requiring approval from the ORR director to access abortion care has nothing to do with Lloyd and goes back a decade.
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That is a lie, as Hassan told Wagner. Prior to the March 2017 HHS policy under Lloyd, the approval of the ORR director was not required to access abortion care while in ORR custody. It should be noted that nothing in Lloyd’s background indicates he is qualified or equipped to lead ORR or to “counsel” pregnant people in ORR custody against seeking abortion care, which he admitted to doing when speaking to the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement that HHS officials are pretending they didn’t create a new policy regarding access to abortion care. “Blocking undocumented women from accessing safe, legal abortion is the new policy of HHS under the Trump-Pence administration,” Laguens said. HHS “Sec. [Alex] Azar needs to immediately fire Scott Lloyd as Director of the ORR and reverse HHS’ unconstitutional policy.”
Hassan repeatedly questioned Wagner about whether ORR was following the recent court order that prevents the government from blocking young people in ORR custody from accessing abortion. While Wagner clarified they are appealing the order, he assured Hassan the court order was being followed. However, a conservative publication reported this week that a faith-based shelter in Texas that contracts with ORR is refusing to tell unaccompanied immigrant minors in its care that they have the right to access abortion care, a violation of the court order.
Lloyd is said by advocates to be ushering in a wave of “anti-choice fanaticism” into the U.S. immigration system, first illustrated by the case of Jane Doe, a pregnant unaccompanied immigrant teen in ORR custody who was essentially “held hostage” for wanting to access abortion care.
ORR’s revised policy “allows [shelters] to wield an unconstitutional veto power over unaccompanied immigrant minors’ access to abortion,” according to court documents. This directive explicitly prevented unaccompanied immigrant minors in their care from obtaining abortions by prohibiting federally funded shelters from taking “‘any action that facilitates’ abortion access to unaccompanied minors in their care without ‘direction and approval’” from Lloyd.
At a congressional hearing in March, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) joined a chorus of lawmakers, advocates, and organizations demanding Lloyd’s termination when she told Azar, that Lloyd should be “fired immediately.”
The intent of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ hearing was to shed light on ORR and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts to protect unaccompanied immigrant minors from abuse, efforts that have made little progress.
ORR has some serious problems to contend with, including the agency’s failure to keep track of children it releases to sponsors, with nearly 1,500 children going missing in a three-month period last year.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), chairman of the subcommittee, began the hearing with the story of eight unaccompanied immigrant minors who, in 2015, migrated to the US with the help of human traffickers. These young people were picked up by DHS, transferred to ORR custody, and promptly released back into the custody of the human traffickers, whom ORR failed to vet and allowed to be sponsors of the children.
“The traffickers took them to an egg farm in Marion, Ohio, where the children lived in squalid conditions and were forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, for more than a year. The traffickers threatened the children and their families with physical harm—and even death—if the children didn’t work,” Portman said.
The situation lead to an investigation by the subcommittee and at a January 2016 congressional hearing, HHS committed to clarifying DHS and HHS responsibilities for protecting children in their care. The agencies said they would enter into a detailed “Joint Concept of Operations” (JCO) that would outline the agencies’ plan for addressing issues of safety for unaccompanied immigrant minors. The deadline for the JCO was February 2017. As of April 2018, no JCO exists.
The New York Times recently reported that the Trump administration has moved forward with its policy of separating children from their parents at the border, meaning ORR has taken custody from parents of approximately 700 children, including more than 100 who were younger than 4, despite the children having migrated with their parent.