NEW BLOOMINGTON, Ohio — On the phone, the boy was frantic. After traveling hundreds of miles from a village in Guatemala, he had made it across the U.S. border and into a government-funded shelter for unaccompanied minors.
But then something went terribly wrong.
Instead of sending him to his uncle, Carlos Enrique Pascual, a landscape worker in Florida, authorities said the shelter released the teenager to traffickers who took him to central Ohio, held him captive in a roach-infested trailer and threatened to kill him if he tried to leave.
“Please, how can I get out of this?” Pascual’s nephew begged him during a stolen moment with a telephone. “I’m hungry, and my heart is bursting with fear.”
Pascual called police and, in December 2014, authorities found his nephew, then 17, and seven other boys living in cramped, dirty trailers about an hour outside of Columbus. Authorities said they were working at Trillium Farms, one of the country’s largest egg producers, debeaking hens and cleaning cages nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week, for as little as $2 a day.
The boys were part of a surge of children flowing across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past four years, overwhelming federal officials responsible for their safekeeping, child advocates say. Since 2011, more than 125,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been stopped at the border, many placed in shelters funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has demanded a response from the Obama administration to whistleblower claims that thousands of those children have been released to sponsors with criminal records that include homicide, child molestation and human trafficking. Legal advocates for the children say many have wound up in abusive situations, where they have been forced to work to repay debts or living expenses. Some children simply stop showing up for immigration hearings and vanish.
“We have a large percentage of these kids that disappear, and I don’t know what happens to them,” said Jessica Ramos, a lawyer with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, an Ohio nonprofit group that represents children in immigration proceedings.
Andrea Helling, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said the inspector general is investigating the whistleblower allegations. She acknowledged that the agency briefly relaxed identity requirements for family members collecting children at the height of the surge in May 2014 to help place children more quickly.
Since then, she said, the agency has strengthened its protection efforts by reinstituting a fingerprint requirement for many people who claim children from federally funded shelters, expanding a hotline to report abuse, and requiring caseworkers to call and check up on children within 30 days of their release.
“We are committed to placement of unaccompanied children with appropriate sponsors that serve the best interest of the child,” Bob Carey, the agency’s director, said in a statement.
Still, the agency conducted post-release checks on only about 6,500 children in fiscal 2014, Helling said. Once the children are settled with sponsors, she added, state and local child protection agencies are responsible for their well-being.
“Once a child is placed with a sponsor,” she said, “the local community becomes very important.”
Helling declined to discuss the agency’s handling of individual children, including Pascual’s nephew. Federal prosecutors indicted six people in connection with the trafficking scheme; five have plead guilty.
No legal action has been taken against Trillium Farms, whose executives say they were unaware that a subcontractor hired to provide manual labor was engaged in human trafficking.
“Our employment guidelines are strict, and we participate in all federal programs to verify employment,” chief operating officer Doug Mack said in a statement. “While we have the same requirements for our contractors, it is clear in this case we were misled by the contracting company, which intended to act illegally.”
Alarmed by the case, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, opened an inquiry into the government’s system for processing unaccompanied minors. The results are scheduled to be made public Thursday, when Portman plans to chair a hearing on the matter.
“Based on what I have learned to date, I am concerned that the child placement process failures that contributed to the [egg farm] trafficking case are part of a systemic problem rather than a one-off incident,” Portman said in a statement.
In October 2011, federal officials began to notice a sharp spike in the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians. Many came from three countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — and were fleeing drug cartels, gang violence and domestic abuse.
“The level of violence we’re seeing that these kids have suffered has steadily increased,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. “The situation in Central America right now is a lot like a war.”
When minors are apprehended at the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection puts them into a detention facility, where they can remain for up to three days. They are then transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which houses them in more than 100 shelters scattered across 12 states, including California, Florida, New York, Texas and Virginia.
Typically, the children stay in the shelters for about a month. While there, each is assigned a caseworker, who asks the child questions to determine whether the child is a trafficking victim. The caseworker is also tasked with finding each child a “sponsor,” an adult who agrees to take responsibility for the child. Many already know the name of their preferred sponsor, often a parent or family member in the United States.
Sponsors are supposed to undergo background checks, fill out a two-page form about their relationship to the child, list the names of others in the household, and check boxes declaring whether anyone in the home has been convicted of a crime or accused of physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or child abandonment. Sponsors who are not parents or guardians are supposed to submit fingerprints.
But that doesn’t always happen. In a November letter to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Grassley complained that background checks are often not thorough, sponsors are not properly vetted and many are not fingerprinted.
Helling said the agency stopped requiring fingerprints for sponsors only briefly, in May 2014. She said the agency still does not require fingerprints from parents who can provide proof of their identity and relationship to the child.
Although background checks have improved since then, service providers say many children still wait weeks, or even months, for follow-up visits from caseworkers.
“You go to pick up a case and sometimes the kids have already moved. Maybe the whole family has moved,” said Lavinia Limon, president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which contracts with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide post-release services. “It’s fairly common that the kid won’t be there.”
The teenagers at the egg farm were all from remote villages tucked into the mountains of the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala, a few hours from the Mexican border. The region was the site of several massacres during Guatemala’s civil war in the 1960s and is still beset by drug trafficking and gang activity.
Pascual’s nephew, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he and his family have received death threats, was from one such village, where families live on small plots of land and earn money by chopping lumber or working on coffee plantations. Pascual described a life of poverty and hardship.
“People find their way however they can,” he said.
According to an FBI affidavit filed in the egg-farm trafficking case, a local man named Aroldo Castillo-Serrano became rich and powerful by smuggling Guatemalans into the United States, and by forcing them to work at the egg farm to repay smuggling debts that could total $15,000. Castillo-Serrano soon began trafficking children as well, prosecutors said, thinking they would be easier to smuggle into the United States, as well as easier to control and more hard-working.
“They were picked for their need and desire to come to the United States, and their vulnerability,” said Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, whose office in Cleveland is prosecuting the case.
The first boy arrived in November 2013, and was settled in an isolated rural trailer park, a sprawling 50-acre complex that proved the perfect place to hide smuggled teenagers. Many of the 100 trailers were dilapidated and had broken windows. Sheriff’s officers came out frequently to break up fights and arrest people for dealing drugs.
“People won’t even let their kids go trick-or-treating in the trailer park,” said Jamie Johnson, 37, who has lived there for five years. “I don’t blame them. There are some nasty trailers out here. People keep to themselves.”
With winter approaching, prosecutors said, the first boy found his trailer dirty and unheated. He called a family friend and begged to leave. But the traffickers told the boy he had to stay until his debt was repaid.
In the spring of 2014, as the crisis at the border grew, prosecutors said, the traffickers attempted to bring a second teenager to the trailer park. But federal agents caught him at the border and he was placed in a shelter funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
On June 6, 2014, prosecutors say, Castillo-Serrano arranged for someone to file a Family Reunification Application, claiming to be a family friend of the teenager. The ploy worked, and the agency released the teen to the traffickers, who took him to the trailer park.
Over the next three months, according to the indictment, the traffickers repeated the process at least five times, filing false applications that fooled federal refugee officials into delivering the boys to them.
Pascual’s nephew was among them. The boy’s parents had paid smugglers to transport him across the U.S. border from Guatemala, Pascual said. The details about what happened after that are unclear.
The boy was stopped by border guards and taken to a shelter for unaccompanied minors, but neither the FBI nor prosecutors would say where. While his nephew was in the shelter, Pascual said that federal officials called and asked him to be the boy’s sponsor and that he agreed. But the boy was instead released to the traffickers — people, Pascual said, his nephew did not know.
Sometime in late summer, the traffickers took the boy to the trailer park. Pascual said they told him he had to work at the egg farm to repay a $20,000 debt; if he tried to escape, they said they would shoot his parents in the head.
Like the other boys, Pascual’s nephew allegedly handed over his paychecks to a woman named Ana Angelica Pedro Juan, 22, who gave him a little money for food and necessities and kept the rest, according to the indictment.
When he phoned Pascual in October, the nephew complained of being “starved,” of “sleeping in a rotting trailer full of cockroaches,” of waking up at night, fearful that “these people will come and hurt me.”
Meanwhile, the teenagers caught the attention of Scott Douglas, 56, a handyman, who shares a tidy trailer with his dog, Mona. He hammered boards together to build them soccer goals; in warm weather, they donned jerseys and played in the grass. He also gave them rides to a Mexican grocery store 10 miles down the road in Marion, Ohio, where they spent a lot of time making phone calls.
Douglas, who speaks no Spanish, said he didn’t know the boys were being held captive. “There was a language barrier,” he said.
The boys’ situation became clear on Dec. 17, 2014, when a team of federal and local officers staged a predawn raid of trailers that were smelly and strewn with trash. Later, people who moved into those trailers found troubling signs of the boys’ deprivations: One trailer had no toilet, just a five-gallon bucket filled with feces. It also had a trap-door in the kitchen, which opened to reveal mattresses and blankets spread in a dark crawlspace in the dirt below.
During the raid, agents pulled about 45 people from the trailers, including all eight of the boys working at the egg farm. Douglas watched from a window.
“The FBI told me that night: They said human trafficking, human slavery,” he said. “Everybody out here was surprised. We just knew they went to work all the time.”
Only one of the six defendants agreed to discuss the case. During an interview at the Pennsylvania detention center where he is awaiting deportation, Bartolo Dominguez, 55, of Mexico, acknowledged driving the teenagers from the trailer park to work at the egg farm, but said he did not realize they were being held against their will.
“If I would have known about the abuse of the teens, I would have told somebody,” he said. “I thought everything was fine. I never imagined this. They were working enthusiastically.”
One of the defendants, Pedro Juan, pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial on charges of forced labor conspiracy, witness tampering and making false statements to the FBI. Her attorney, Merle Dech, declined to comment.
The alleged mastermind, Castillo-Serrano, 33, of Guatemala, pleaded guilty. He is awaiting sentencing in Ohio on charges of labor trafficking conspiracy. His attorney also declined to comment.
After their rescue, the teenagers were driven an hour and a half east to a Hampton Inn, where they were given breakfast and allowed to make phone calls. Pascual said his nephew “was so happy. He wanted to come be with me in Florida. He’s my sister’s son, my flesh and blood, so I said, ‘Of course.’ ”
A social worker called Pascual and sent him an application to become his nephew’s sponsor. But then, Pascual said, a woman called and said the boy was being diverted again, this time to a foster home in New England.
“ ‘We’re taking him. Don’t worry. We’ll put him in a home. He’ll be safe, and he’ll be able to study, go to school,’ ” the uncle said the woman told him.
Reached by cellphone, the nephew confirmed that he is now safe; he declined to comment further.
Pascual, who remains in touch with the boy, said he is relieved.
“He sleeps without fear,” the uncle said.
VanSickle is a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Program, a nonprofit news organization at the University of California at Berkeley.