More than 150 migrant children have been held in U.S. Border Patrol facilities past the 72-hour court-mandated limit, potentially putting minors at risk, Colorado Democratic Representative Diana DeGette has warned.
DeGette, who chairs the House oversight panel that directly oversees the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it was revealed to her in a phone call with Jonathan Hayes, chief of the HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement, that 178 children were being held at the border past the 72-hour limit as of Wednesday.
Under federal law, unaccompanied minors must be transferred from short-term holding stations to more adequate accommodations run by the HHS within 72 hours barring "exceptional circumstances."
After that 72-hour period, federal law demands that the HHS must have custody over unaccompanied minors and take responsibility for their care.
According to DeGette's office, Hayes told the Colorado representative that the HHS's capacity was "strained at the moment" and was experiencing difficulties providing care for the influx of children arriving at the border.
The ORR head told DeGette that currently, the department is already running 165 shelters across 23 states to house migrant children.
He also said the department would soon be opening up two additional facilities in Texas and Oklahoma over the coming days, where the HHS would be able to house "hundreds of more migrant children."
Border Patrol holding facilities are not considered to be adequate for long-term housing, with some facilities lacking beds or showers.
DeGette's office said that when the U.S. representative reminded Hayes that it is up to the government to ensure that children are not being held in such holding stations for more than 72 hours, the ORR chief said the department could not act until the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency refers a child to the department for care.
"Only then can HHS work to locate an appropriate facility with available space to send them," DeGette's office said the representative was told.
After DeGette pushed, telling Hayes that it is ultimately the HHS's responsibility to care for the health and well-being of migrant children in U.S. custody, the ORR head insisted his "hands were tied until those kids are actually transferred to HHS custody," her office said.
Newsweek has contacted CBP for comment for this article.
In a statement posted following her phone call with Hayes, DeGette accused both agencies of failing to communicate to ensure the safety of the children being held under federal care.
"HHS was given the responsibility to care for these children because they have expertise to do so. But it's clear that neither HHS nor CBP is reaching out to one another to ensure these kids are being provided the appropriate care," DeGette said.
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"We need these agencies working together, and we have to find a way to break down any barriers that are preventing them from doing that," she said. "Because, right now, what we have is a system that's breaking down, and when that happens it is ultimately the kids who are hurt the most."
DeGette's warning comes as the Trump administration faces growing scrutiny over the treatment of migrant children in its care after reports detailing "appalling" conditions, including inadequate access to food, water and sanitation, came to light