US waives FBI checks on caregivers at new migrant facilities

HOUSTON — 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.

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These emergency sites don’t have to be licensed by state authorities or provide the same services as permanent HHS facilities.

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.

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HHS’ inspector general warned then that FBI fingerprint checks “provide a unique safeguard” over most commercial background checks that search a person’s name.

“While the various background checks could identify some past criminal convictions or sexual offenses, these checks were not as extensive as the FBI fingerprint background checks,” the inspector general found.

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