A majority-minority report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Homeland Security Committee was released on Thursday, January 28 detailing abuse and lack of safeguards for children who came into the U.S. unaccompanied.  According to the report and the hearing that accompanied its release unaccompanied minors have been subject to various forms of abuse and trafficking with many forced into involuntary labor.

Unaccompanied minors are exactly what they sound like, minors who crossed the border into the United States alone.  For the most part they cross into the US to escape severe conditions in their home country. In recent years there’s been an increased flow of children and youth coming into the country from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras due to violent and dangerous conditions there.  These children and youth have been coming over the border at an increasing rate.  In 2008 there were 8000 unaccompanied minors but by 2014 the crisis flow had resulted in more than 69,000 children crossing the border.  That increase was tempered somewhat last year when the number coming across decreased to 39,000.  Even that however is still a great challenge to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS.

Playing off the conditions in these countries are human traffickers who exploit family fears in the home country.  They may promise great opportunities in the US but upon arrival the children (and sometimes adults) become entrapped because they cannot pay large smuggling fees or they (in the case of children) are placed with adults (sometimes relatives) that entrap children into forced labor and sex trafficking. 

In his opening statement Senator Portman highlighted an incident in his state of Ohio.  In Marion county, six defendants were charged with enslaving several victims, including at least six migrant children from Guatemala, on egg farms.

In the case detailed by Portman, traffickers lured the child victims to the United States with the promise of schooling and a better life. The parents of some of the children signed over the deeds to their property back home as collateral for debt incurred to pay for the journey. After their arrival, the children—some as young as 14—were forced to work 12 hours a day, six to seven days a week. Living conditions were squalid, with children packed into a crowded, dilapidated trailer.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) also described with greater detail other cases.  In one placement by ORR a 16-year old was placed with a sponsor who claimed to be a cousin. That turned out to be untrue and the sponsor was completely unrelated to the 16-year-old girl.  The sponsor in fact had her come to the U.S. as what the Senator described as “a sort of mail-order bride.’ The sixteen-year-old had been subject to sexual assault in her home country and was now forced to have sex with her sponsor. She appealed to a post-release services provider for help and was ultimately removed by Child Protective Services.

In a second case described, a 17-year old boy was released to an unrelated “family friend” who reported living with three additional unrelated adult men. HHS released this teen to the sponsor without conducting background checks on any of the unrelated adult men with whom he would be living, without conducting a home study of his sponsor’s home, and without providing him with post-release services. In June 2015, this minor contacted ORR to let the agency know his sponsor was actually the son of a labor recruiter, who had approached the teen in Guatemala about an opportunity to work in the U.S. The sponsor forced the teenager to work almost 12 hours per day in conditions that made him ill. The teen ultimately ended up living in a home belonging to his employer.

The report was highly critical of HHS and made a series of recommendations.  Some of their recommendations were critical of ORR and their background check efforts.  The report called for changes in the home study process that is supposed to take place before a sponsor placement.  The report called for a greater similarity to the home study process used for child welfare placements.  They also called for shortening the time it takes for such studies.  The report also recommends post placement follow up and services which would also allow for a re-check on the child’s status.