United States (Sunlight) – The Office of Refugee Resettlement removed its staff directory from its website, likely between October and December of last year. The change came just before the political firestorm over the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the border and accusations that the office has failed to communicate transparently with the public during the controversy.
The Web Integrity Project’s latest report documents the takedown of an entire page containing staff contact information from the website of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the office within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that is responsible for managing the health and well-being of refugees, asylees, and other specific groups of newly arrived immigrants.
The removed “Contact ORR” page, accessible through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, listed individual contact information, such as email addresses and phone numbers, for 22 key ORR employees, including an email address for ORR Director Scott Lloyd. Contact information for the leadership of various ORR divisions, like the Divisions of Refugee Assistance (DRA), Refugee Health, and Children’s Services, was also removed, as was information for employees representing each of the DRA regions across the country. This removed contact information is no longer available anywhere on the ORR website.
Those seeking to contact the office headquarters are, instead, now only able to find general contact information on an updated ORR “About” page, including a general media inquiry email address for ORR’s parent agency, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a phone number for “general inquiries,” the “Unaccompanied Alien Children Parent Hotline” number, and ORR’s mailing address. This information, although newly added to the “About” page, was all previously available on the removed “Contact ORR” page. HHS has a department-wide employee directory, although it doesn’t provide the ability to search for ORR employees directly. Individuals working within ORR, like Director Lloyd, don’t have any ORR-designation within the directory and are often listed without a title, making information difficult to access.
ORR has recently received negative attention for its role in the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Much of the public outcry has centered around poor communication by the agency, which has been plagued by insufficient resources and a lack of experience working in crisis contexts.
Many members of the media have expressed frustration with HHS’s unwillingness to respond to their questions regarding the policy. In June, CBS’s David Begnaud, on Vox’s Today, Explained, stated, “We’ve been trying to reach Health and Human Services for days now, and we can’t get them to put someone on camera who can give us … a lengthy interview to answer our questions.”
Those searching for children separated from their families, and the advocates and lawyers who represent them, have also expressed frustration with ORR’s inability to provide them with timely answers through the channels of communication that have been established by HHS.
Customs and Border Patrol issued a document titled “Next Steps for Families,” last published in June, that advised families to contact the ORR Parent Hotline in certain circumstances. The hotline, however, has long holding times and is often uninformative, according to a report by The Intercept. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which has interviewed hundreds of parents who have had children separated from them, told the Intercept that, “when trying to locate these children, legal counsel found that government representatives often deliberately hung up on them after they disclosed that they were calling to inquire about the location of a parent separated from a child at the border.” The Washington Post also reported issues with the Parent Hotline after an immigration lawyer tried contacting ORR only to hear a recorded message stating, “We are experiencing high call volume. Please stay on the line for the next available case manager.”
When callers have been able to get through to case managers, NBC News has reported that ORR won’t release information on children, in order to protect them, unless callers provide information that matches what ORR has on file. If the information does match, callers may be informed if an individual is in a shelter, but they are then told that ORR will have to call them back to put them in direct contact.
Frustration with the Unaccompanied Alien Children Portal, another means for finding information on separated children, is just as prominent. Reuters reported on problems with the portal, which has not been able to handle the volume of user traffic that it has received. The “zero-tolerance” policy has created an additional strain on the portal, which was originally designed to track children who arrived at the border unaccompanied but is now being used to track thousands of children who have been separated from their families and guardians. Other technical issues plague the portal as well, including limited search functionality, data reliability concerns, login issues, and limited case management functionality.
While ORR removed individual federal-level employee contact information from its website, contact resources for coordinators who oversee ORR-funded state-level programs are still available online. These state coordinators’ email addresses and phone numbers can be found on the “ORR Funded Programs Key Contacts” webpage. Contact information for partner organizations providing services to refugees at the local level is also available on a state-by-state basis on the “State Program Directory” webpage.
ORR did not provide advance notice or explanation for why they removed their staff directory from their website. This failure to provide notice may violate the Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires agencies to “provide adequate notice when initiating, substantially modifying, or terminating significant information dissemination products.”
In response to WIP’s request for comment, an HHS spokesperson suggested that the ORR staff directory webpage removal was consistent with changes to the websites of other ACF offices and said, “the website was reorganized as part of an overall ACF update, designed to get individuals with questions to email mailboxes and phone numbers that are regularly monitored.”
The HHS spokesperson’s claim, however, isn’t consistent with information that is currently available on other ACF offices’ websites. The Office of Community Services does continue to list individual federal-level employee contact information on an “OCS Leadership Directory” page, which includes email addresses and phone numbers last reviewed in July 2017, and both of ACF’s Office of Child Care and Administration for Native Americans continue to have pages with individual federal-level employee contact information that was last reviewed this year available on their websites.
Whether as a point of contact for the media or to serve members of separated families that are desperately trying to find out about and contact one another, it is important that federal agencies provide an easy-to-use and reliable conduit for contacting agency officials. Taking down contact information, especially when it’s already readily available online, not only harms the public’s capacity to interact with our government but undermines the public’s trust as well.
This report prepared by Sunlight Foundationfor