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Screening of unaccompanied minors amid pandemic questioned

Lawmakers say CBP chief’s testimony contradicts what he submitted in writing before hearing

Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, testifies during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled “CBP Oversight: Examining the Evolving Challenges Facing the Agency,” in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 25, 2020.
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, testifies during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled “CBP Oversight: Examining the Evolving Challenges Facing the Agency,” in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 25, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool)

Nearly 2,000 unaccompanied minors have been turned away at the southern border since the Trump administration implemented a public health order amid the pandemic, according to a top Homeland Security official, who gave lawmakers conflicting answers Thursday on whether those children were first screened for signs of torture, trafficking or other types of abuse.

At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Mark Morgan, the acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, testified that all of the children were screened to make sure they didn’t potentially qualify for asylum. But some lawmakers noted that contradicted what he submitted in written testimony before Thursday’s hearing. 

In those remarks, Morgan said initial asylum screenings on unaccompanied minors have been conducted only on a case-by-case basis, “when it is not possible to return a minor to his or her home country or when an agent or officer suspects trafficking or sees signs of illness.”

But Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., noted that “the regulation is that all unaccompanied minors are screened,” not just when border agents see signs of abuse or torture.

Morgan did not say how many children have made it through initial screenings and who would then be processed into the care of a Health and Human Services agency that oversees detained minors. But Morgan said anytime a child traveling alone is turned back at the border, his agency works with other countries to ensure that minor is safe.

“CBP works extensively with the governments of the countries that they are being returned to, to make sure that they are returned in a safe and humane, compassionate way, and that they are actually reunited with their parents in their home country,” Morgan said. 

However, he admitted that CBP does not track whether those minors make it back to their original home. 

The issue of screenings stems from how U.S. border agents have been handling asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors who have approached the southern border since March 21. That’s when the Trump administration implemented a public health order that allowed border officials to turn back migrants who would otherwise have been allowed, by law, to stay and demonstrate their eligibility for humanitarian protection. 

Immigration advocates have since sued the Trump administration over the order, which has virtually ended asylum requests at the U.S. border amid the pandemic.

Since the public health order was implemented, immigration officials have sent back more than 41,000 migrants at the southern border, according to the latest government data.

Only 59 cases have been referred by CBP to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services because officials have indicated credible fear of torture, according to the most recent USCIS figures. 

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