Memo Highlights Background Check Failings at Border Detention Center for Migrant Minors

By Michael Klazema on 12/11/2018

A memo from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has issued a memo highlighting background check failures at a youth detention center in Tornillo, Texas. The detention center became a crucial location for United States border security this summer after President Trump implemented a “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Through the policy, President Trump vowed to prosecute any migrants caught crossing or trying to cross the United States-Mexico border illegally. Trump’s policy drew sharp criticism. The Tornillo, Texas detention facility became ground zero for the detention of unaccompanied migrant minors.

Per a report from the Washington Examiner, the detention facility has now been flagged by OIG for failing to comply with multiple federal laws. Chief among these compliance breakdowns is a failure to obey a law requiring FBI fingerprint background checks for every employee working at the detention facility. The Examiner notes that the Tornillo facility is staffed by more than 1,000 employees who monitor the more than 2,300 young migrants now housed there.

The Tornillo facility did conduct background checks—but not in a fashion that complied with federal mandates. Rather than running fingerprint checks through the FBI criminal database, the detention center reportedly worked through a private vendor to screen its employees.

For the most part, it is not clear how thorough these checks were or which types of criminal history searches (local, state, federal, database) were included. The background checks did not include searches for past instances of child abuse or neglect. According to the OIG memo, a waiver signed by Scott Lloyd—formerly the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)—exempted all employees at the Tornillo facility from having to pass this type of check. The argument from ORR: the detention center did not have time to conduct this extra layer of background checks before it opened its doors and started accepting influxes of migrant youth.

The OIG report noted that the Tornillo facility did not have enough mental health clinicians on staff given the number of migrant children housed at the facility. As of the beginning of October, the facility had a ratio of one clinician to every 55 children. The federal requirement is one clinician for every 12 children.

The OIG has requested that the Department of Health and Human Services put together a plan to solve the problems highlighted in the memo, with a priority of putting a plan in place to ensure that every staff member at the facility has the proper background checks.

This case represents a fundamental failure on the part of administrators to heed legal requirements. There is an existing argument about whether FBI fingerprint checks should be held as the gold standard: the FBI criminal database is actually smaller than’s own US OneSEARCH database, and not all records are linked to fingerprints. Still, compliance is something that every organization needs to take seriously when it comes to putting together a background check policy. Following the letter of the law with background checks is one of the easiest ways for organizations to avoid lawsuits, costly fees, PR nightmares, and other pitfalls.



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