On October 25, 2023, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “Ensuring the Well-Being of Unaccompanied Children, Pt. II,” to examine the efforts of federal agencies to protect migrant children from labor exploitation, human trafficking, and abuse and neglect in foster care. Chairman of the Committee, Senator Dick Durbin [D-IL], delivered the opening statement touching on the need to protect children from labor exploitation and the strengthening of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. Durbin also said he will be introducing legislation this week that will aim to improve vetting of sponsor families for unaccompanied children and their placement, help children navigate the legal system, and better protect minors in government custody. Ranking Member, Lindsey Graham [R-SC] in his opening statement highlighted the increase of unaccompanied children migrating to the United States over the past three years.
Testimonies were given by Seema Nanda, the Solicitor of Labor for the Department of Labor (DOL), Robin Dunn Marcos, the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for the Department of Health and Human Services, Joseph Salazar, the Director for Central American Affairs for the U.S. Department of State, and Cardell Morant, the Assistant Director of Homeland Security Investigations and the Director of the DHS Center for Countering Human Trafficking.
Ms. Nanda testified that in 2023 alone there has been an 88% increase in the number of children employed illegally since 2019, with nearly 5,8000 children being employed in violation of child labor laws with more than 500 being in hazardous work environments. Nanda emphasized the intensive resources required to conduct child labor law investigations by the DOL and the expansion of resources required to put an end to the exploitation of children by varying companies.
Committee members on both sides of the aisle were in agreement that the immigration system is overwhelmed, but disagree over the best methods to solve the issue and where the priorities of the Congress and Biden administration lay. Senators highlighted their concerns for unaccompanied migrant children placed with sponsor families, due to the lack of connection with children after placement and process of background checks. Ms. Dunn Marco testified there is not a requirement, nor enough resources, for the ORR to sufficiently connect with children after placement nor to increase the intensity of the background checks. She testified the ORR is working to expand post release services, particularly legal assistance for kids placed in foster care and with sponsorship families.
Senator Jon Ossoff [D-GA] questioned Ms. Dunn Marco on the oversight conducted on foster care and state agencies, and what the ORR is doing to ensure children are not subject to abuse and neglect while in foster care. Ms. Dunn Marco said the ORR’s work in all states, except Florida and Texas, with licensed facilities to ensure children have access to resources, such as legal services, to ensure their protection of unaccompanied children, but further oversight will require more resources to expand post and legal release services.
By Harper Dilley, Policy Intern