WASHINGTON—Under the Obama administration, the discovery that unaccompanied children were entering the country, mostly illegally, across the Southwest border, and subsequently being placed with human-trafficking rings, galvanized a Senate subcommittee to investigate.
Three years and many recommendations later, the committee says not enough has changed.
In 2014, during an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border, the Office of Refugee Resettlement placed eight children into the hands of traffickers, according to a report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, released on Aug. 15.
“The traffickers put the children into forced labor on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio,” the report states. “The children worked for no pay for 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week, and lived in deplorable conditions. The traffickers threatened them and their families with violence if the children did not comply with them.”
The traffickers lured the children into the United States over a four-month period, with promises of education and a better life, the report said.
After crossing the border and being apprehended by Border Patrol, unaccompanied minors are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours. The ORR sits within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which operates a network of just over 100 shelters in 17 states.
The ORR is responsible for placing the minor with a sponsor in the United States—which is often a parent who is already in the country illegally, or a relative, or family friend.
In the 2014 case, the human traffickers posed as family members or friends of the family to the eight children, and ORR placed them, without conducting background checks or site visits.
Six of the seven traffickers have subsequently been convicted, with one case still to be decided.
“When we last held a hearing on this issue in April, we heard reports of children being placed in homes with people they don’t know, who expect them to work to help with living expenses,” subcommittee ranking member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said at an Aug. 16 hearing.
“We heard about children, sometimes due to a need to send money home or to pay debts to smugglers, working all night and unable to stay awake at school during the day.”
Committee members said government agencies haven’t moved fast enough to stop exploitation.
“These federal agencies must do more to care for unaccompanied minors and ensure they aren’t trafficked or abused,” said subcommittee Chairman Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). He said the subcommittee has provided both HHS and the Department of Homeland Security with a road map for how to improve the unaccompanied minor program and protect the children, “yet, they have largely ignored those recommendations.”
Failing to Appear
The committee’s bipartisan report says the most significant unaddressed problem is that no agency claims any legal responsibility for the children’s well-being once they are placed with sponsors—including sponsors who are not their parents or legal guardians—and no agency makes any effort to ensure minors placed with sponsors appear at their immigration court proceedings.
Although ORR attempts to conduct a courtesy phone call 30 days after placing the child, that is often the full extent of the followup.
HHS said that over a three-month period in 2017, when it made follow-up phone calls, it “could not ascertain with certainty” the whereabouts of 1,475 unaccompanied minors it had recently placed, and 28 had run away from their sponsors, the committee report states.
With no one responsible, the number of minors who show up for their immigration court hearings is low.
“Today, 53 percent of unaccompanied children never show up for their court proceedings—an increase of 12 percent since 2016,” said Portman.
In recent years, around 6,000 to 7,000 unaccompanied minors have failed to attend their immigration court hearings, each year, according to James McHenry, director of the Executive Office for Immigration Review. He said more than 80,000 unaccompanied minor cases are pending, which is about 11 percent of the overall pending caseload.
While failing to appear in immigration court automatically places an alien into removal proceedings, almost no unaccompanied minors are ever removed.
“The best number we have is that only 3 percent are deported,” Portman said.
‘Foster Care System’
By definition, an unaccompanied alien child is under 18 and has no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide care and physical custody, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Regardless, Homeland Security determined that about 60 percent of the children initially determined to be “unaccompanied alien children” are released by ORR within an average of 57 days to a parent already living illegally in the United States.
More than 10,000 minor children are currently in the custody of ORR; the vast majority of them are sent alone by their parents, who pay smugglers to bring them across the southwest border.
Around 80 percent hail from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Most are aged between 15 and 17.
Thus far in fiscal 2018, approximately 44,000 unaccompanied minors have entered the United States.
Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, said the unaccompanied minor program has grown vastly beyond its original intention.
“The [program] was never intended, however, to be a foster-care system,” Wagner said on a May 29 media call. He said the program runs at an immediate cost to the federal taxpayer of over $1 billion a year.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which was enacted to protect minors, has become a loophole for smugglers and for circumventing proper entry.
The TVPRA has a provision that says a minor from a non-contiguous country can’t be turned back to Mexico or flown back to their home country—even if the individual isn’t a victim of trafficking, nor if their age, identity, credible fear status, or criminal background cannot be verified.
The administration wants Congress to amend the TVPRA so that minors who aren’t genuine trafficking victims can be quickly returned home or removed to safe third countries.
In addition, the Flores Settlement Agreement, a Clinton-era settlement of a class-action lawsuit, puts pressure on the relevant government agencies to release unaccompanied minors quickly.
“This practice has not only led to aliens failing to appear for court hearings, and failing to comply with removal orders, but has also incentivized smugglers to place children into the hands of adult strangers so they can pose as families and be released from immigration custody after crossing the border,” said Richard Hudson, acting chief of Law Enforcement and Operations Division at Customs and Border Protection.
“This creates a safety issue for these children, who have already made an extremely dangerous journey to reach the United States, risking possible trauma, abuse, abandonment, injury, and death along the way.”
Aside from being at risk of exploitation, many unaccompanied minors have admitted to crimes such as murder, rape, drug smuggling, prostitution, and human trafficking, according to files obtained by Judicial Watch and released in a report on July 10.
During fiscal 2014, more than 68,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the Southwest border and 24,680 “significant incident” reports were filed by HHS, according to Judicial Watch—putting the rate of incidents reported at 36 percent, if one incident represents one unaccompanied minor.
A “significant incident” includes crimes committed by unaccompanied minors and crimes committed against them. The report details examples of minors who were raped or molested en route to the United States or once in the United States.
The HHS records reveal that one unaccompanied female, once reunited in the United States, told her mother she was pregnant.
“When the client’s mother asked her who the father of her child is, the client reluctantly replied that she was sexually assaulted by her guide several times,” the HHS report states.
“The client stated that the first time he sexually assaulted her was the evening of March 30, 2014. She reported that the guide sexually assaulted her every evening between March 30 to April 6. The client stated that the guide became very protective of her and when picked up by immigration, claimed her as his wife. The client stated through fear of retaliation, she did not report the sexual assault to anyone.”
Border Patrol agents have said that parents sometimes put their female children on birth control pills prior to the journey north in anticipation that they will be raped along the way.
Under the Trump administration, more stringent measures have been implemented to ensure the safe placement of unaccompanied minors.
Since June 7, HHS has been required to submit the fingerprints of all potential sponsors to the Department of Homeland Security, which conducts criminal and immigration status checks before a minor is released.
But the loopholes in both the TVPRA and Flores agreement will remain open unless Congress steps in.