By Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. government workers feared retaliation for raising concerns last year about the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children on a Texas military base, where children have been held amid record arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a watchdog report released on Tuesday.
Two U.S. government employees said they experienced retaliation after they sounded alarms about the conditions at Fort Bliss, which has been used for emergency housing since March 2021, according to the report issued by the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general's office.
The alleged acts of retaliation, which included demotion and removal from assignments, may have caused a broader "whistleblower chilling," the inspector general's office said, "effectively scaring staff into withholding any complaints or reports of wrongdoing."
The whistleblowers cited in Tuesday's report included a staff member working with HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) leadership. ORR oversees the care and custody of unaccompanied minors.
The staffer, who was not named, was allegedly demoted and transferred after raising concerns about the treatment of children at the base and the removal of certain safety checks in the program to release children to sponsors.
An HHS official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters the agency would not retaliate against someone for raising a child welfare concern.
The HHS official said the agency faced challenges during an emergency situation in the spring of 2021, but that conditions at Fort Bliss now are “night and day” compared to then. There are currently 589 children at the base, the official said, and children stay, on average, for 13 days before being released to parents or other sponsors.
ORR's parent agency agreed with all the report's recommendations, including ensuring that employees and contractors are aware of whistleblower protections.
In a letter to the inspector general, the agency pledged to more explicitly specify the protections in contractor agreements and trainings. GRAPHIC-Unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. custody, https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-IMMIGRATION/CHILDREN/gkplgrmogvb/chart.png
The number of children caught crossing the border with Mexico rose steeply in 2021, posing operational and humanitarian challenges for U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat. To alleviate overcrowding in border stations, HHS opened several emergency shelters to house unaccompanied children until they could be placed with sponsors in the United States.
Migrant children sent to the emergency shelters, including Fort Bliss, described crowded living conditions, spoiled food, lack of clean clothes and struggles with depression, according to child testimonials filed in court in June 2021.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Aurora Ellis)