April 26, 2024 

ORR Affirms Whistleblower Protections in Finalized Rule for Unaccompanied Children 


WASHINGTON – On April 23, 2024, the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) announced its Foundational Rule to codify Flores protections for unaccompanied children. The final Rule establishes standards for the care and custody of noncitizen minors, which have largely been governed by the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement.  

The Foundational Rule includes provisions for healthcare, placement and release, and legal access for children in ORR custody, and establishes minimum standards for Emergency and Influx Facilities, as well as an independent Ombuds Office. The final Rule comes after a comment period in which ORR received thousands of public comments, including from Government Accountability Project, who warned that the language of the proposed rule undermined statutory whistleblower protections.  

With revisions in response to these comments, the final rule now states, “ORR emphasizes that no portion of this regulation impacts the rights, protections, and vital work of whistleblowers in providing information for the protection of children in ORR custody and for the general public interest.”  

It is critical that ORR affirmed the rights of employees to blow the whistle on abuses, danger, and legal violations they witness, especially given the outsized role whistleblowers have played in oversight of ORR operations to date. In 2021, whistleblowers represented by Government Accountability Project spoke out about concerns of poor conditions and mismanagement in ORR’s emergency operations for unaccompanied noncitizen children. These reports included lack of appropriate medical care, inadequate clothing and supplies, and children “lost” in ORR’s case management system, languishing for months in tent camps. Following our clients’ whistleblowing, the HHS Office of Inspector General conducted oversight investigations into HHS emergency operations at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, acknowledging the role of whistleblower reports in initiating the investigation. The Inspector General’s findings included that mismanagement may have resulted in children being released to unsafe situations within the United States, and that there was a culture of chilling whistleblowers who raised concerns to HHS leadership. Last year, reports surfaced that children who passed through ORR custody were found in dangerous situations of unlawful child labor; Government Accountability Project has reported on the hazardous impact of weak whistleblower protections for noncitizens, including children, particularly in the U.S. food production industry. 

Government Accountability Project Immigration Counsel, Andrea Meza, commented: 

While the provisions of the Foundational Rule are welcome developments, it remains to be seen whether ORR’s troubled operations will successfully implement the outlined changes. We are pleased that ORR heeded our advice and affirmed whistleblower protections for employees who speak out against wrongdoing, especially as several of our clients’ claims of whistleblower retaliation remain pending before HHS. It should not be the case that whistleblowers are one of our best enforcement mechanisms in the protection of unaccompanied children, but as long as this is the case, employees’ right to raise alarm about dangerous conditions for children must be respected.  


Contact: Andrew Harman, Communications Director
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (202) 926-3304  

Government Accountability Project  

Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.