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Unaccompanied migrant children face a greater risk of trafficking because of the way that the Biden administration discharges children from government custody, a senior senator told the Washington Examiner.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said the flawed system that the government relies on to find sponsors for children who come over the border has been further weakened by President Joe Biden, and the senator says that children will suffer.
Earlier this spring, amid the highest-ever levels of migrant children arriving alone on the U.S.-Mexico boundary, the Biden administration chose to stop collecting as much personal information from adults who volunteered to take care of the children after they were let out of the Department of Health and Human Service’s child care centers.
The move was intended to help illegal immigrants living in the United States who came forward to collect children without fearing that they would risk getting ensnared by law enforcement and deported in the process.
Portman said he is worried about the Biden administration’s call for all employees of government agencies to help out at HHS facilities working with children in custody, describing it as a recipe for disaster and that the bureaucrats themselves could be a danger to children.
“While I am not aware of any wrongdoing yet, I am concerned that those employees could pose a risk to children — either because of potential intentional bad acts or because they are not properly trained or credentialed to work with children — especially those who have faced traumatic circumstances in their home countries or on their trip to the border,” Portman wrote in an email. “I would hope that HHS would share … the type of background checks, if any, that HHS completes before the federal employees arrive to care for the children.”
Also, because of the way HHS releases immigrant children, local schools are not informed, meaning that they are not prepared for new enrollees. Portman has tracked this specific issue for six years and relayed that he was told by state and local officials that “they are not told anything about the arrival of unaccompanied children in their states.”
“This means that no one in the school systems knows to be tracking whether these children show up to school,” Portman wrote. “That leaves these children more vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and performing work that violates U.S. labor laws. It also leaves the school systems unprepared to accommodate the additional students who show up to class — particularly those who have special needs or language requirements.”
In some cases, children are fleeing their home countries and paying human smugglers to get them to the U.S. so that they can find work, even though federal law forbids children and younger teenagers from working. Portman met an 11-year-old girl being held at HHS’s privately run child detention facility in El Paso, Texas, in March who described plans to work under the table rather than attend school.
“She worked in Honduras picking chili peppers and decided to make the dangerous journey north for a better job. The conversation left me concerned that she was promised a job by her trafficker upon entering the United States, meaning she very well could have been labor trafficked, with the trafficker awaiting her release from the HHS facility,” Portman wrote.
Three bipartisan investigations overseen by Portman and the ranking Democrat during his time as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded that HHS was releasing children to dangerous sponsors. During the Obama administration in 2016, investigators discovered that HHS released children in its care to a human trafficking ring in Ohio. HHS “failed to run background checks on the adults in the sponsors’ households as well as secondary caregivers, failed to visit any of the sponsors’ homes; and failed to realize that a group of sponsors was accumulating multiple unrelated children,” according to the report.
In 2018, Portman and the subcommittee’s top Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, followed up to see if HHS, as well as the Department of Homeland Security officials responsible for encountering children at the border and the Justice Department officials who track them through immigration court proceedings, had enhanced procedures to ensure that children were not being abused as a result of the government’s negligence. They found that the system for assisting noncitizen children had worsened and more abuse claims were coming in.
In 2020, Portman and Carper found that the recommendations had not been implemented and children were continually being released through processes they deemed as unsafe. On top of that, $32 million in taxpayer money were going toward caring for children and finding adequate sponsors. The three reports called for HHS to complete fingerprint background checks of sponsors and adults living in the potential sponsor’s home. Portman’s co-sponsored Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act would make those requirements not a recommendation, but an enforceable law.
“The U.S. federal government has a responsibility for these children and cannot and should not allow them to fall victim to human trafficking, abuse, or other harm upon their release from federal custody,” said Portman.
HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.