A new audit by the Health and Human Services Department shows that 344 unaccompanied migrants were released to nonfamily sponsors, who already host at least two children. This raises questions for advocates, who fear that strangers could be sponsoring minors and exploiting them as child workers.
The audit conducted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Agency, which is responsible for the care and release of minors unaccompanied, showed that both the real number and the percentage of minors unaccompanied who were placed in nonfamily sponsorship increased between 2021 and 2022.
Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense and a proponent of unaccompanied migrant kids, said: “We have seen in our work that many children are put into situations where they don’t know the people and are treated like second-class citizens in the family, and are under pressure to work.”
If a migrant under the age of 18 arrives in the U.S. and is processed by HHS, and then released within the U.S. they must be placed into the care of a sponsor who may or may not be a relative. HHS data shows that the total number of unaccompanied children released since 2012 by ORR is over 600,000. More than a third were released during the Biden administration.
In the calendar year 2021, 138 917 minors were released by the government. 11,8% of those minors, or 16,456, went to sponsors who were not family members.
In 2022 calendar year, slightly less unaccompanied minors (124,781) were released. However, more were released to sponsors who were not family members — 18,004 (14%).
The audit concluded that ORR had conducted the necessary background checks on nonfamily sponsors, including FBI checks, sex offenders checks, requests to the Child Abuse and Neglect Registry, and in some cases home studies. The agency officials point out that the number released to nonfamily sponsors who already sponsored two or more children is less than 1 percent of the total released since the start of 2021.
“Each of us is responsible for the care and protection of a child, regardless of circumstances and without exception. HHS takes seriously its responsibility when it comes to temporary custody of unaccompanied children and their placement with vetted sponsoring agencies. This was stated by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. The audit, released today, confirms ORR’s efforts to give unaccompanied children the care and attention that they deserve, particularly those who have suffered significant trauma. ORR is equally diligent in its sponsor and placement vetting process, which places most unaccompanied kids with a parent or relative.
Becerra said, “We’ll continue to do our share to protect the safety of unaccompanied kids, including working with the Department of Labor to crack down further on child labor.” We expect companies and employers to follow the law in regards to child labor.
ORR is under scrutiny after reports of child labor abuses on the rise. A Labor Department investigation found that more than 100 children, many of whom were unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, were cleaning Midwestern slaughterhouses. Since 2018, labor officials report a 69% rise in the number children working in violation of labor law.
When ORR struggled to manage an influx unaccompanied children in March 2021, it issued a new guideline that prioritized the expedited placement for unaccompanied kids to limit their ORR time. The critics say that these changes have reduced the scrutiny of sponsors who may exploit children as labor.
ORR examined 344 children placed with sponsors that already housed two or more children. The advocates for immigrants say that sponsors like this could be a warning sign of child trafficking.
Young told NBC News she was not surprised at the number of children who were released unaccompanied to nonrelatives. However, these releases need the most supervision. She said that there are too many examples where the process fails. The most extreme example is the fact that they are allegedly releasing these people into exploitative work situations.
Monica Meier runs the social worker program at the Immigrant legal Center in Nebraska. She said that her team has helped more than 1,300 unaccompanied migrants who came to Nebraska from 2021. She said that most of the children are placed with their families, so a sponsor who is not a family member and has three or more children would be a warning sign.
Meier stated that the unaccompanied children are willing to work, and therefore vulnerable to trafficking. They don’t realize that children under 12 should not work overnight in a meatpacking facility with hazardous chemicals. This allows people to exploit them.
The HHS audit does not specify where the 344 released children are located in the United States.
ORR contacts the child and sponsor at least three times within 30 days of the release date. The audit found that neither the child nor the sponsor were reached in 46 out of 344 cases. HHS claims that it reaches either the child or the sponsor in over 80% of the cases.
The auditors also examined 172 out of 344 cases. Twelve of the 344 cases were found to be runaways, and another 12 were referred to Child Protective Services.
HHS will create an Innovation and Accountability Team within the ORR Director’s Office to “focus” on identifying and mitigating potential fraud, abuse and exploitation among unaccompanied migrant child in the next 4 months.
In March, the agency signed a new Memorandum with the Labor Department to formalize the information sharing between both agencies in order to address the growing concern about unaccompanied minors working illegally.
Officials from the Departments of Labor and HHS have been urged to reveal any link between child labor and the release unaccompanied children.
In a letter sent last week , GOP members of Congress from the House Education and Workforce Committee asked Labor Department officials for the number of identified child labor victims who were in the care of HHS.
A spokesperson for the HHS Office of Inspector General said that they are also evaluating how ORR screens sponsors of unaccompanied minors. They expect to release a report this summer.