The head of the US refugee agency that oversees the care of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children in government custody has been replaced, according to an internal email obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, oversees shelters across the country that hold unaccompanied children. These shelters then look to identify potential "sponsors" or family members in the US for permanent placement.
Jonathan Hayes, the director of the ORR, had been in the position since February 2019, during the height of an increase in referrals of unaccompanied children who had crossed the border and got picked up by Border Patrol agents. As of late March 2019, around 32,000 unaccompanied children had been referred to the ORR for custody.
“Jonathan Hayes, as ORR Director, has led and served with dignity, with passion, and with humility. Together, you have made an enormous impact for the good over the last two years,” Lynn A. Johnson, assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees ORR, wrote in an internal email Friday announcing the move. “That is why it is so bittersweet for me to share with you that Director Hayes has been promoted to serve as Senior Advisor in the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS, effective today at 6pm EST.”
The agency has been a focus of criticism by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, along with those at the White House and Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump.
An HHS official told BuzzFeed News that Hayes had been pushed out of his role at the direction of the White House.
But in a statement, an HHS spokesperson said Hayes had been tapped to help with the government's coronavirus response as senior advisor in the Office of Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. In that role, the spokesperson said Hayes "brings a tremendous amount of experience managing complex logistical challenges as Director of ORR, under often difficult and dynamic circumstances."
The Washington Post reported in December that senior White House officials pushed to have ICE agents within ORR facilities. Instead, the administration opted to allow ICE to collect fingerprints of those who seek to pick up immigrant children at government shelters.
“He’s done an awful lot to build capacity. He has reestablished credibility and integrity back to the program,” said HHS spokesperson Mark Weber.
In February, ICE began fingerprinting unaccompanied immigrant children over the age of 14 who are in ORR shelters across the country. “ORR’s current practice of predominantly relying on documents with biographic information alone rather than fingerprints to confirm sponsor identity and suitability is dangerous and irresponsible,” a senior ICE official said at the time.
“Fraudulent documents and documents obtained by fraud are known to be prevalent at the southwest border.”
Last year, the agency came under fire for its reliance on two “temporary influx facilities,” including in Homestead, Florida. The Homestead facility had been a target of advocates, attorneys, and presidential candidates who said it was ill-equipped to handle the needs of the young children in its care.