In its latest investigative report on labor abuses of unaccompanied alien children, the New York Times on April 17 revealed that the Biden White House knew that migrant kids were being mistreated by traffickers and smugglers, but did little to nothing about it. At long last, light is being cast on one of the darkest corners of the administration’s border disaster. The problem is the Times won’t “connect the dots” and blame poorly thought-out federal laws, passed over a decade ago to protect migrant children, but which now facilitate the very exploitations the paper identifies.
A Brief History of Unaccompanied Alien Children. By statute, an “unaccompanied alien child” or “UAC” is an alien under the age of 18 with no lawful immigration status and “with respect to whom ... there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States; or ... no parent or legal guardian in the United States is available to provide care and physical custody”.
Inasmuch as the Biden administration has banned the statutory term “alien” from DHS’s vocabulary and the White House’s glossary of approved words by diktat, the politically correct abbreviation is now “UC”.
In any event, the Homeland Security Act (HSA) — which abolished the former INS and created DHS — created the concept of UACs as a separate alien group and vested jurisdiction for the housing and placement of UACs in removal proceedings with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
At first, however, there weren’t a lot of UACs for ORR to deal with. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that in the early 2000s, DHS only encountered about 6,700 UACs annually, whom it placed into removal proceedings and referred to ORR.
DHS’s UAC encounters soon soared, however, beginning in FY 2009. That’s when the Democratically controlled 110th Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA).
TVPRA requires DHS to transfer all UACs in its custody from “non-contiguous” countries (that is, every country other than Canada and Mexico) over to ORR within 72 hours of encounter. TVPRA also directed that ORR then place all but a handful of those children with “sponsors” in the United States — even if they hadn’t been trafficked and don’t have asylum claims.
That 2008 act has subsequently served as a magnet drawing minors to enter illegally. By FY 2012, three fiscal years after the TVPRA was passed, Border Patrol apprehended more than 24,400 UACs at the Southwest border, a figure that climbed to 38,750 in FY 2013 and 68,500 in FY 2014.
Not surprisingly, given the preferential treatment TVPRA offers to UACs who aren’t from Mexico or Canada, the number and percentage of UACs apprehended at the border from non-contiguous countries skyrocketed. According to CRS:
In FY2009 ... children from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) represented 82% and 17%, respectively, of the 19,668 UAC apprehensions that year. By FY2021 [when nearly 145,000 UACs were apprehended at the Southwest border], those proportions had flipped, with Mexican and Northern Triangle children respectively representing 18% and 77% of all UAC apprehensions.
Since February 2021, Border Patrol has apprehended more than 286,430 UACs from non-contiguous countries at the Southwest border, and CBP officers at the ports there have stopped an additional 2,309 — 288,739 in total.
Complaints from Surprising Sources. Some surprising sources complained early on that TVPRA was encouraging UACs from non-contiguous countries to enter illegally.
In a June 2014 letter, President Obama asked congressional leaders to provide DHS with “additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children from non-contiguous countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador” — that is, to scale back TVPRA.
Two months later, the editorial board at the Washington Post weighed in, arguing that President Obama was “right to identify a 2008 anti-trafficking law [TVPRA] as a key source of” what it termed a “flood of underage kids” at the Southwest border.
The board explained: “Inadvertently, that law has encouraged thousands of Central American children to try to reach the United States by granting them access to immigration courts that Mexican kids don’t enjoy”. Given all that, you would have expected some quick changes.
The UAC Problem Gets Worse Under Biden. Except Congress failed to act, and the UAC problem has worsened, particularly under the Biden administration. In FY 2022, Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 149,000 unaccompanied alien children at the Southwest border, nearly 86 percent of whom weren’t from Mexico or Canada, as well as more than 54,500 new UACs from non-contiguous countries in the first five months of FY 2023.
ORR — which has struggled in the past to protect unaccompanied alien children — is now overwhelmed and failing in those responsibilities, as it rushes to clear its limited shelter space by quickly placing children with sponsors in the United States.
In September, HHS’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) — the department’s watchdog — issued a report blasting the office’s performance in caring for, tracking, and releasing UACs encountered at the Southwest border and entrusted to ORR’s care at its emergency intake sites.
The OIG made two major findings. First it found that “field guidance issued from March 2021 through June 2021 removed basic safety measures from the sponsor screening process in an effort to expedite children’s release from care”.
In that vein, in a July 2021 letter to ORR leadership, referenced in the OIG report, federal field specialists complained: “Case management staff are encouraged to strive to do the absolute minimum vetting of sponsors to effectuate the quickest releases. As a result, there are safety issues that are likely being overlooked.”
Insufficient vetting of sponsors has been a problem that has plagued ORR’s UAC program on and off for years, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan explained in 2015.
The Trump administration attempted to address this vetting problem, including by requiring HHS to provide information on sponsors to DHS. Consequently, however, the time UACs spent in ORR care while proper sponsors were located increased from 48 days in FY 2017 to 102 days in FY 2020, which prompted complaints from — among others — then-candidate Joe Biden.
He complained on his campaign website: “It is a moral failing and a national shame when ... children are locked away in overcrowded detention centers and the government seeks to keep them there indefinitely.”
Second, OIG found major deficiencies in ORR’s online case management system, which was susceptible to crashes and timeouts (up to 10 times daily) that would erase unsaved data, as well as usability issues and missing data.
Worse, deficiencies in the search capabilities of that online system hindered the ability of case managers to determine whether potential sponsors had already sponsored other UACs — a possible marker for potential trafficking and exploitation as OIG found.
As of April 17, according to HHS, “the average length of time an unaccompanied child remained in ORR’s care was 25 days”, less than one quarter of the time that the UAC vetting process had taken in FY 2020 under Trump.
“U.S. Was Warned of Migrant Child Labor, but ‘Didn’t Want to Hear It’”. Which brings me to the latest Times article, captioned “U.S. Was Warned of Migrant Child Labor, but ‘Didn’t Want to Hear It’”.
It follows up on a February Times expose on UACs captioned “Alone and Exploited: Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.” Here’s the key excerpt from that piece:
Largely from Central America, the children are driven by economic desperation that was worsened by the pandemic. This labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down.
Those “systems” are almost all within the federal government, created in the wake of HSA and TVPRA. While the latest Times article asserts that the White House is vowing to crack down on labor exploitation of UACs, the paper explains that “all along, there were signs of the explosive growth of this labor force and warnings that the Biden administration ignored or missed”.
Specifically, lower-level officials in HHS and the Department of Labor sent reports to the White House voicing migrant child labor concerns, but those “reports were not flagged as urgent and did not make clear the scope of the problem”. Field staff complaints were ignored at the department level.
Why? The Times explains:
[A]s shelters filled with children, [HHS] began loosening some vetting restrictions and urging case managers to speed the process along.
Longtime H.H.S. staff members complained that the changes endangered children. White House aides and administration officials grew exasperated, believing that these workers were clinging to protocols that kept children in shelters when it was better for them to be in a home with an adult.
Keep in mind that I explained why that truncated ORR vetting process endangered UACs as early as May 2021, in a post captioned “Reports Suggest HHS Is Cutting Corners in Vetting Sponsors of Migrant Children: The border issue no one’s talking about — yet.” I guess they are talking about it now — nearly two years too late.
”This is B.S.” According to the Times, images of migrant children sleeping under mylar blankets in overcrowded overflow centers (which emerged in the spring of 2021) raised red flags for a least one powerful White House staffer — Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy advisor and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Citing five different (unnamed) sources, the Times contends that Rice “told staff members she was frustrated with the situation”. And then, the article gets really interesting, but also internally inconsistent.
But first some brief background. As I’ve explained, HSA and especially TVPRA created a magnet drawing UACs from non-contiguous countries to enter the United States illegally. Some older children have come on their own, but it’s safe to assume that most have come at the request of some adult (family, friend, or trafficker) with the encouragement and assistance of smugglers.
In the first full 26 months of the Biden administration (February 2021 to March 2023), Border Patrol agents at the Southwest border have apprehended just short of 342,000 UACs. That’s over 44,000 more than in the six prior years combined (72 months), between FY 2015 and FY 2020.
The former record for Southwest border UAC apprehensions was set under the Obama administration in FY 2014, when agents caught 68,541 UACs. That surge was what prompted Obama to send his letter asking for fixes to the TVPRA to congressional leadership, and why the Post editorial board expressed its concerns about child entries shortly thereafter.
The Biden administration eclipsed that FY 2014 UAC apprehension record in just its first five full months (February to June 2021), when agents encountered more than 74,000 children at the Southwest border.
The question is why so many UACs are crossing the Southwest border illegally now, and my answer is that a combination of those HSA and TVPRA magnets and the Biden administration’s rapid releases of UACs from ORR custody (and his campaign statements) signaled to parents, family members and traffickers, and (as importantly) smugglers that now was the time to send — or send for — the kids.
Others — including to some degree the Times — have a very different view, however, blaming that surge on desperate parents and family members abroad where local economies had been ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeking a “better life” for their children, those adults are now willing to engage in “voluntary separation” from those children by sending them to the United States.
According to the Times, here’s where Rice came down on the question:
Ms. Rice vented in a note she scribbled on a memo detailing the position of advocates, who believed a pandemic-era border closure was compelling parents to send unaccompanied children, sometimes called U.C.s.
“This is BS,” Ms. Rice wrote, according to a copy of the memo reviewed by The Times. “What is leading to ‘voluntary’ separation is our generosity to UCs!”
I could not agree more, but of course a White House spokesman had to backtrack on the policy advisor’s leaked moment of candor, asserting that Rice is “proud to be doing the right thing and treating children with dignity and respect”. But now, we now know the truth.
Recap To recap, federal statutes are encouraging unaccompanied alien children from non-contiguous countries to enter the United States illegally, safe in the knowledge that they will be eventually released to live in the United States. The Biden administration is turbocharging that process by ensuring that “eventually” means “quickly”.
Corrupt employers and others in the United States are taking advantage of those UAC loopholes to exploit migrant children, forcing many of them into long hours of sweatshop labor and dangerous working conditions. The White House knows that this is happening — and even why it is happening — but is doing little to nothing to stop it.
Credit the New York Times for shining light on abuses of migrant children by those exploiting federal statutes and administrative incompetence and indifference. Fault it, however, for doing what it blames the administration for — failing to “connect the dots” and realizing those abuses are the logical result of poorly thought-out laws, intended to help kids but now hurting them, in the worst of ways.