116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Kim Reynolds has made national headlines by calling for a congressional hearing and investigation into the transportation of 19 migrant children through an Iowa airport. After being given false information by an executive agency that should have full knowledge of the planned transfer of minors, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and Democrat U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne are seeking answers from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
A flight of children, chartered by the federal government, landed in Des Moines on April 22, the Des Moines Register reported. It was also reported that some passengers got off the plane in Iowa. Local news in Long Beach, Calif. reported the flight held nearly 100 unaccompanied migrant children. Twice, HHS and its Office of Refugee Resettlement told Reynolds the flight was not chartered by HHS and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was not involved, according to the governor.
How could a federal agency, at worst, willfully provide false information to the top executive elected official in our state or, at best, have no knowledge of where a plane full of children are going? The governor’s office is right to look into how this agency communicates with states and what accountability the agency has for unaccompanied children who are alone in a new and unfamiliar country.
Removing children from the cramped, harsh border containment centers should certainly be a priority for the Department of Homeland Security. Young children are often compelled to go on a long, treacherous journey by family members and can’t be held to the same standard of criminal trespass that adult migrants are. A 5-year-old barely knows what a national border means, let alone understands that they are breaking any laws.
Unaccompanied children deserve the care Americans can provide through foster homes and sponsor families. Additionally, our local law enforcement and government deserve to have full knowledge of mass federal transports of vulnerable populations to provide the proper support and oversight.
Naturally, any onlooker should be suspicious of a group of children being ushered through an airport by a few strangers in the middle of the night and then loaded onto buses. This type of situational awareness is what we train airport staff to have and hope that community members possess the wherewithal to exercise.
So what will be the consequences of not informing, and potentially lying, to the governor? In short, nothing. The Senate Judiciary Committee may hold a hearing where a representative for the agency will answer some questions from a very annoyed Chuck Grassley, but that is the extent to which the concerning breakdown of federalism will be examined. Unless the person in charge of running the executive branch, President Joe Biden, decides to take interagency action, there is little accountability for this communication catastrophe.
Looking more broadly at the HHS communication breakdown, this situation highlights the lack of agency accountability and inability of Americans to demand a higher standard of service from these agencies.
Executive agencies are made up of career staffers that have relative job security when adminstations change, and political appointees that are hired according to the preference of the presidential administration in office. Even if Biden were to take action within an agency, he would be mostly limited to the scope of action of his politically appointed staff, and the interest in agency career staff to buy into his agenda.
Former President Donald Trump rolled back federal job security in an executive order that allowed a class of federal workers to be reclassified as at-will workers under the designation of “Schedule F,” able to be hired and fired when their superiors deemed appropriate. Biden revoked this classification during his first few weeks in office, stating that it “undermined the foundations of the civil service.”
Working for the government isn’t necessarily corrupting and the Washington, D.C. “swamp creature” narrative that Trump campaigned on was quite disrespectful to the dedicated and often brilliant civil servants who these agencies employ. However, Trump was correct in identifying that the autonomy and separation of bureaucrats from elections and other types of public accountability can produce frustrating and even dangerous outcomes.
There are a variety of ways that an agency can use regulations or even act according to their own discretion in a way that conceals information from elected officials, such as using guidance documents and memorandums to alter enforcement of certain rules and standards. It’s also quite common to not include a notice-and-comment or economic analysis with a proposed regulation or rule. Congress is empowered to change agency operations by passing administrative bills, but there are also other ways to make sure agencies are keeping the rule of law in mind and transparency a priority without passing a new bill.
Allowing judicial review of significant guidance documents, requiring a regulatory impact analysis for guidance documents (currently only some proposed rules are required to undergo a regulatory impact analysis) and requiring that agencies collaborate with state-level authorities when their action will significantly effect or take place within the state.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the border crisis and Biden’s immigration policies, Iowa law enforcement should have been notified that a large group of vulnerable, migrant children were going to be transported through Iowa. Hopefully, a committee hearing will provide clarity to how this situation unfolded and there will be meaningful change to how HHS communicates with local officials.
Patricia Patnode is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org