Catch, release, murder: HHS withholds answers on suspected MS-13 migrant charged with slaying woman
Top Republicans said the Health and Human Services Department is withholding from Congress a report on its handling of an illegal immigrant juvenile who was caught and released and now stands accused of a shocking murder of a 20-year-old autistic girl in Maryland.
Kayla Hamilton’s slaying last summer shook the immigration debate. HHS conducted an audit of its approach to the then-17-year-old migrant charged with the homicide, and in June the department promised the House Judiciary Committee it would provide the audit.
Months later, Congress says it’s still waiting.
Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and Rep. Tom McClintock, chairman of the immigration subcommittee, said the department is also withholding information on the worst abusers of the Unaccompanied Alien Child program.
“In the three months since the briefing, the Committee has reiterated its requests numerous times. To date, HHS has not provided the requested audit or the information, and has declined to even respond to the Committee’s requests,” the lawmakers wrote in a new demand for cooperation from Secretary Xavier Becerra. The Washington Times obtained a copy of the letter.
The name of the murder suspect has not been released, but his case suggested serious lapses in the government’s handling of UACs.
According to the Judiciary Committee’s investigation, the migrant had been arrested in El Salvador for associating with MS-13 and had gang tattoos. He was arrested in the U.S. on March 23, 2022, and labeled a UAC, meaning he’d show up at the border without a parent.
Under U.S. law and policy, Homeland Security turned him over to HHS, which then sought out his aunt in Frederick, Maryland, and released him to her as his sponsor. Hamilton was found dead in her apartment in Aberdeen, Maryland, on July 27. Authorities said she had been sexually assaulted and then strangled.
Tammy Nobles, Hamilton’s mother, said her daughter tried to phone her boyfriend during the attack but the call went to voicemail. The result is a two-minute, 30-second recording of the murder. When the boyfriend returned to the apartment he found a phone charger wrapped so tightly around Hamilton’s neck that he had to use his teeth to get it off, Ms. Nobles testified to Congress in May.
“If we had stricter border policies, my daughter would be alive today,” she said. “I am her voice now, and I am going to fight with everything I have to get her story told.”
The murder suspect was one of 14,137 UACs caught entering the U.S. in March 2022. He told authorities he paid $4,000 to a guide who smuggled him over the border, and he claimed he was fleeing gang violence.
Judiciary Committee investigators said the government missed his MS-13 ties during their screening. It was only after he emerged as a suspect in Hamilton’s murder that those became known. All it took was contacting El Salvadoran officials, the committee said, hinting that HHS and Homeland Security skipped that step.
The Times has reached out to HHS for comment for this story.
In HHS case files the department’s employees said the boy had “no behavioral issues” and “demonstrated good judgment and age-appropriate behaviors.” Those assurances rang hollow after the murder, the Judiciary Committee said in a report in May.
More than 400,000 UACs have been detected streaming into the U.S. since February 2020, or just after President Biden took office, and after a dip early this year their numbers surged again in August to more than 14,000 in that month alone.
They are the toughest cases in the immigration debate, combining the truly desperate and needy with some bad actors — including some adult gang members who pose as children to try to earn a quick catch-and-release.
The Biden administration has reduced the checks performed on UACs before they are released to sponsors, leading to more reports of abuse. The New York Times, in a series of stories, said tens of thousands of migrant children have been sent into forced labor.
Experts blame the relaxed checks for allowing children to disappear into communities with no substantive follow-up.
HHS’s inspector general, in a report last year, found cases in which “many children” were sent to a single address.
“The system doesn’t trigger a notification that one person may be sponsoring 15 kids at the same apartment complex, or in the same unit,” one case manager told the inspector general.
Mr. Jordan, Ohio Republican, and Mr. McClintock, California Republican, demanded HHS provide data on the worst abuser of that system. They said that, like the audit on the murder suspect migrant, has been withheld so far.