As the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border reaches unprecedented highs, concerns are growing that the ongoing border crisis is fueling a rise in the abuse of minors through sex trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of exploitation. On Wednesday, during a House Oversight Committee hearing to address the issue, both Republicans and Democrats expressed alarm at the job performance of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and his agency in handling unaccompanied minors and how sponsors for the minors are vetted.
In February, a New York Times investigation revealed that 250,000 unaccompanied minors had entered the U.S. in the last two years alone, at a rate that was three times higher than it was five years ago. It has fallen to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide a “sponsor” to these children who are supposed to provide for and protect them from exploitation. But as a result of the massive influx, the Times noted that “the Biden White House has ramped up demands on staffers to move the children quickly out of shelters and release them to adults.” This has led to caseworkers “rush[ing] through vetting sponsors.”
Alarmingly, the Times went on to report that “over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children” after it attempted to contact them a month after they were placed with their sponsor. “Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.”
The Times report further detailed how many children were forced to work low-paying, hard-labor jobs by their sponsors as repayment for taking them in. Still, Becerra pressured staffers to quickly discharge children to sponsors. “If Henry Ford had seen this in his plants, he would have never become famous and rich. This is not the way you do an assembly line,” he said during a staff meeting in 2022. In March, Becerra threatened to find someone to replace Cindy Huang, the director of HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), unless she could increase the number of discharges. She resigned a month later.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) asked Becerra if his agency inspected the homes of 100% of the prospective sponsors before granting them the sponsorship of a minor. He replied, “We will often do home studies of sponsors” instead of answering the question directly. “I guess that’s a ‘no,’” Lesko observed. She went on to point out that a family in Austin, Texas “had more than 100 children sent to it by ORR. Another Texas address had 44 children, a third had 25. … I do not think you are doing an adequate job.”
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) further pressed Becerra on if his agency allowed 17-year-old unaccompanied males who identify as female into the private facilities of unaccompanied girls, based on HHS’s stated policy of affirming the chosen identities of transgender youth. “We make sure that we provide all the children in our care with the human rights protections and freedom from discrimination and abuse that they’re entitled to,” Becerra responded. “It should not work that way,” Crenshaw firmly replied. “It puts girls in danger, and I bet a lot of the girls are younger in age.”
Later, after Becerra refused to directly answer what his definition of a “thorough” background check was of adults who come across the border with small children claiming that they are in fact their children, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) pointed out that HHS only uses a DNA test to verify that the child is theirs in 9% of the cases and only employs a background check in 23% of the cases.
Even Democrats expressed alarm at Becerra’s job performance. Rep. Ann Eshoo (D-Calif.) was visibly disturbed after Becerra appeared to wash his hands of minors who were vetted for placement through his agency and ended up illegally working overnight shifts at construction sites, slaughterhouses, and factories, according to a New York Times report.
“This is so unsettling, this is so unsettling,” Eshoo lamented. “These are … the innocents of the world. This is really terrible. … Reports of trafficking and abuse of immigrant children has more than doubled from 2021 to 2022. At the end of the day, as HHS secretary, the buck stops with you. So, I can hope, I can pray, I can press. … This is something that needs to be totally removed from taking place in our country. Really, I think that God’s going to hold all of us responsible if this is not addressed, and addressed the way it should be.”
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