IN THE summer of 2014, headlines were dominated by a crisis of unaccompanied migrant children fleeing to the United States, seeking shelter from poverty and violence in Central America. However, many of these migrant children left desperate conditions in their home countries only to be caught in the grip of human traffickers here in the United States, delivered to criminal captors by the federal agencies mandated to help protect them.
Since 2011, more than 125,000 minors have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border; October and November of last year alone saw more than 10,500 unaccompanied minors apprehended by Customs and Border Protection. Since 2014, the majority of unaccompanied children have come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras; almost 40 percent of them are 15 or 16 years old.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for placing unaccompanied children in the custody of adult sponsors who are expected to care for them while their immigration cases are being processed. But according to whistleblower claims, many of these children were released into the hands of sponsors with criminal records, including homicide, child molestation and trafficking.
A recently released Senate report confirmed that HHS in 2014 placed at least six children with a ring of human traffickers, who then forced them to work at Trillium egg farm in Ohio for as little as $2 a day. According to a 2015 criminal indictment, the children were subjected to inhumane treatment — forced to work six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and the traffickers “repeatedly threatened the victims and their families with physical harm, and even death, if they did not work or surrender their entire paychecks.” The children were housed in trailers with “no bed, no heat, no hot water, no working toilets, and vermin.”
The Trillium trafficking case is symptom of a wider problem with monitoring unaccompanied minors once they enter the United States. The Senate report noted 13 other cases of post-placement trafficking of minors, with 15 more cases indicating signs of possible trafficking. Inexcusable gaps in HHS policies and procedures led to unaccompanied minors being placed with sponsors or relevant adults in a household without background checks.
The administration says that it has strengthened its background-check procedures and that adults with serious criminal offenses are now disqualified from becoming sponsors. But HHS accepts no responsibility for the care and safety of minors once they are placed with sponsors, insisting that state and local child protection agencies are responsible for their welfare. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security urgently need to establish a clear agreement as to which federal agency is responsible for monitoring the welfare of unaccompanied minors from the time they are placed with a sponsor until the time of their immigration hearings. Vulnerable, lonely children fleeing violence and abuse in Central America shouldn’t be subjected to more of the same once they arrive in the United States.