Witnesses in the hearing, titled “The Biden Border Crisis: Exploitation of Unaccompanied Alien Children,” included Health and Human Services (HHS) whistleblower Tara Lee Rodas. The hearing was sponsored by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security, and Enforcement.
Rodas, who was assigned to work with HHS at an emergency intake site in Pomona, California, spoke to legislators on Wednesday about her experiences there.
“I had hoped to assist in finding children loving homes. Instead, I learned that children are being trafficked through a sophisticated network that starts with recruiting in their home country, is smuggled to the U.S. border, and concludes when the [Office of Refugee Resettlement] delivers a child to a sponsor—some of whom are traffickers, criminals, or members of TCOs. We are seeing a surge in labor trafficking because some sponsors perceive children as goods and commodities to be utilized for financial gain, Rodas added.
The number of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) who cross the border has increased, going from 33,239 in fiscal year 2020 to more than 146,000 in fiscal year 2021 and 152,000 in fiscal year 2022, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures. More than 70,000 UAC interactions have taken place so far in fiscal year 2023.
When child migrants are discovered at the border, they are given over to HHS care and subsequently reunited with a sponsor, who is often a parent or other relative who is already a resident of the United States.
The New York Times has published many articles highlighting the surge in child exploitation, when youngsters are coerced into working as slaves, sometimes to recoup the expenses of their smuggling. It has raised questions about whether the United States is engaged in child trafficking by sending kids to sponsors. According to The Times, authorities allegedly disregarded warning indications of a “explosive” increase in the number of children working.
“Whether intentional or not, it could be argued that the U.S. government has become the middleman in a large-scale, multibillion-dollar child trafficking operation that is run by bad actors seeking to profit off the lives of children,” Rodas said.
As kids couldn’t ask for assistance in either English or Spanish and sponsors used various addresses to get sponsorships of children, Rodas stated how she watched youngsters becoming prisoner to their “sponsors” and became dependent on them. Considering that the problem has been ongoing for over ten years, Rodas said that she does not view it as a political issue but rather as a humanitarian one.
“It was a terrible revelation to realize that we were not giving children the American dream, but rather were putting them in modern-day slavery with wicked overlords,” Rodas said, adding that her life “will never be the same” as a result of what she saw.
Republicans claim that the Biden administration’s policies, which they claim have promoted illegal immigration and parents to give their kids to traffickers, are to blame for the current catastrophe. Democrats have pointed up that the problem existed before the Biden administration and have cited initiatives to improve sponsor monitoring, new task teams, improved information sharing, and proposals for more spending.
“I hope you’ll take action to end this crisis, to safeguard the lives of these vulnerable children,” Rodas urged the senators.
She urged HHS to exercise more control and openness, especially via the Office of Inspector General. She also demanded an end to “retaliation” against whistleblowers, the elimination of a “culture of speed over safety,” and a requirement that sponsors submit reports to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“As it is written: A wise man hears counsel, but a fool persists in his foolishness. To provide for these kids, HHS must exercise wisdom, according to Rodas.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra disputed last month’s claims that the agency couldn’t reach 85,000 youngsters and said that Congress had placed restrictions on HHS’s power.
“Congress has granted us certain powers. Once we have a sponsor for that kid who is a good fit, our authority over that youngster ends. Although we make an effort to follow up, neither the sponsor nor the kid are legally required to do so, the man stated.
Susan Rice, who resigned from her position as domestic policy advisor last week, replied to the Times’ allegation that her staff had been presented proof of the expanding epidemic of migrant child labor.
“We were never informed of any kind of systematic problem with child labor or migrant child labor,” the woman said.