Porous borders and lax enforcement of immigration laws in the interior of the United States have led to an explosion in child labor at worksites across the nation. This troubling development is the result of policy choices made by the Biden administration and Congress that have resulted in an influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) and limited the ability of federal law enforcement to arrest those responsible. Without immediate changes to these policies and nationwide investigations that lead to criminal prosecutions, the exploitation of unlawful child labor will continue to grow. This report details controversial and dangerous policies that must be addressed by the new Congress.
The Media Takes Notice. Critics of the Biden administration’s controversial immigration policies have warned of the negative consequences of limited enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws. That the election of President Joe Biden and the appointment of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas would lead to widespread unlawful hiring practices and exploitation of child labor should not have come as a surprise. The results of the administration’s policies have become so blatantly damaging to American society that media outlets usually blind to controversial policies of open-border administrations have found themselves unable to ignore at least some of the horrific fallout.
A recent investigation from the New York Times exposes the fact that illegal alien minors are “arriving in record numbers” and “ending up in dangerous jobs that violate child labor laws” across the United States. The Times reports that the exploitation of child labor “has exploded since 2021”, and that the “number of unaccompanied minors entering the United States climbed to a high of 130,000 last year — three times what it was five years earlier”. The article is an indictment of the Biden administration’s open-border policies, the results of which were entirely predictable. The Times explains:
These are not children who have stolen into the country undetected. The federal government knows they are in the United States, and the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them and protect them from trafficking or exploitation.
But as more and more children have arrived, the Biden White House has ramped up demands on staffers to move the children quickly out of shelters and release them to adults. Caseworkers say they rush through vetting sponsors.
While H.H.S. checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by The Times showed that over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.
In the last two years alone, more than 250,000 children have entered the United States by themselves.
The Times writes of “Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.” The Times notes that in “northwest Grand Rapids, only 7 percent of migrant children were being released to parents”, the majority being handed off “to more distant relatives, acquaintances or even strangers”, which the Times describes as “an immediate red flag”.
An article from the Washington Post on this growing criminal enterprise explains that as a result of “record numbers of unaccompanied migrant minors arriving from Central America, child labor violations have nearly quadrupled since 2015”. The article describes a 13-year-old girl working the graveyard shift cleaning a Nebraska meatpacking plant, the adults in her life — apparently illegal aliens themselves — facing criminal prosecution for providing false identity documents and driving the child to and from the worksite. A recent Department of Labor (DOL) investigation, reports the Washington Post, “found 102 teens, ages 13 to 17, scouring slaughterhouses in eight states, part of a growing wave of child workers illegally hired to fill jobs in some of the nation’s most dangerous industries.”
ICE’s criminal investigators in Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) have opened an investigation into possible human trafficking related to the DOL investigation, but as explained below, ICE has been largely blocked by Congress from making arrests of sponsors trafficking children to the border, and also largely barred from conducting worksite investigations that might uncover this type of exploitation. Put differently, because of the policies of the Biden administration and the Democrats in Congress, ICE is opening an investigation into something it could have stopped long before it developed into a nationwide problem with victims in multiple states.
Worksite exploitation and child labor are key features of the Biden administration’s open-border, anti-enforcement policies, and ones that President Biden and his appointees must have anticipated. The New York Times states that the “explosion” in unlawful child labor is because “systems meant to protect children have broken down” — inferring that the exploitation is the result of lazy bureaucrats or unintentional mismanagement. This is an inaccurate description. As explained below, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have made policy choices that have guaranteed an explosion in child exploitation, from gutting worksite investigations to blocking ICE from arresting most UAC sponsors.
Biden Has Seen This Before. The Biden administration most certainly understood that its policies encouraging mass illegal immigration would result in child exploitation at worksites across the country. When President Biden was vice president and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was the DHS deputy secretary, law enforcement uncovered a human trafficking ring in Marion, Ohio, that was forcing Guatemalan children to work on egg farms in horrid conditions, some working 12 hours a day, every day of the week. They slept in overcrowded, dilapidated trailers and were subjected to abuse and threats. This exploitation was made possible as a result of the shoddy work of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) placing illegal alien children into the hands of sponsors. It was one case of many.
This U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs issued a scathing report on HHS management of UACs and their sponsors through its Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2016. Authored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the comprehensive report is titled, “Protecting Unaccompanied Alien Children from Trafficking and Other Abuses: The Role of the Office of Refugee Resettlement” — and it’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why the exploitation occurring under Biden today is entirely predictable and preventable.
As Sen. Portman explained:
When they arrived here, they were entrusted to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, like thousands of other unaccompanied children (or “UACs”) detained at the border. Under federal law, it was HHS’s job to find and vet a relative or trusted family friend to care for the child until their immigration court date, or else house them in safe shelters. Instead, HHS delivered the Marion children into the hands of a human trafficking ring that forced them into slave labor conditions.
Sen. McCaskill explained that their investigation:
revealed that HHS has failed to address systematic deficiencies in their placement process, even after these deficiencies were highlighted by the Ohio case. In many cases reviewed by the Subcommittee, HHS failed to ensure that the relationship between a child and a proposed sponsor was properly verified, failed to detect individuals who attempted to sponsor multiple children, failed to ensure sponsors had adequate income to support the children under their care, failed to conduct background checks on all adults living in a sponsor’s home, and failed to employ home studies and post-release services to detect red flags for abuse and trafficking.
Little was done to change HHS policies after the release of this report, and the problems festered until the Trump administration began directing federal agencies to start addressing the handling of UACs and sponsors in 2017. For reasons explained below, that effort was quickly blunted by congressional Democrats and, eventually, by the Biden administration.
DHS Policies Guarantee Child Exploitation. President Biden’s policy of dramatically reducing immigration enforcement had the immediate (and continuing) effect of encouraging mass illegal immigration to our borders. Tens of thousands of children have already arrived, some with adults, some unaccompanied, and they’ve all been allowed to enter the United States with little oversight after entry. The policy of limiting ICE deportations — from 185,884 in FY20 to only 59,011 in FY21 and 72,177 in FY22 — has sent the message that illegal immigration is welcomed. In FY20, ICE deported 14,449 so-called “family units” from the country, but only 2,123 in FY21 and only 7,094 in FY22. The deportation numbers of unaccompanied alien children plummeted from 4,056 in FY20 to only 220 in FY22. These enforcement numbers do not include Title 42-related enforcement, but the Biden administration’s policy of gutting ICE interior enforcement immediately led to an increase in illegal immigration and rapid growth in a vulnerable population of children, many of whom have already been exploited along their travel to the United States.
Increasing the population of vulnerable alien children and limiting the ability of ICE officers to enforce immigration laws was all but guaranteed to result in child labor, but DHS Secretary Mayorkas made it an absolute certainty when he gutted worksite enforcement. The message to immigration officers and criminal investigators at ICE was, verbatim: “cease mass worksite operations” — which can only be interpreted by operators one way: Stop any investigation on any moderately sized employer that could result in arrests of large numbers of illegal aliens. This doesn’t leave much for ICE special agents to do in the worksite space. The child exploitation in the Ohio egg farm case was investigated and stopped with the help of these ICE agents, but under the Mayorkas worksite policy, it’s unclear how ICE could uncover similar exploitation. Any worksite investigation that ICE might have initiated targeting the large employers mentioned in the New York Times article would have the potential to become a “mass worksite operation”. Naturally, special investigators at ICE have not wanted to risk running afoul of Mayorkas’s policies and the exploitation has exploded.
Much of the child exploitation highlighted by the Times could have been uncovered over the past two years if Mayorkas had demanded that ICE open investigations on large employers — but he did the opposite, perpetuating the exploitation and unlawful hiring practices.
Yet another policy issued by DHS Secretary Mayorkas largely prohibits ICE officers from conducting any immigration enforcement of criminal aliens near countless locations throughout the country, including near any “place where children gather” such as a playground or recreational center — and now, apparently, meatpacking plants and other industrial factories. What used to be safe spaces for children have been transformed into safe spaces for violent offenders; what used to be hazardous worksites for trained adults have been transformed into safe spaces for unscrupulous employers exploiting children. This policy prohibits even basic surveillance of criminal alien suspects who happen to be anywhere near so-called “protected” areas. These locations are mini sanctuaries for criminal aliens who are now protected from federal law enforcement. Though this policy is not explicitly aimed at worksites, its scope is so broad that it does encompass places of employment in every community in America. It’s simply another troubling example of how the safety of children is taking a back seat to illegal alien advocacy under the Biden administration.
Congressional Democrats Promote Child Smuggling. The Trump administration took the 2016 Senate report on HHS’s lax management of UAC sponsors into account when developing a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for the sharing of information between ICE, CBP, and HHS in April 2018. The MOA required HHS to share with CBP and ICE information on the UACs in their custody, such as criminal history, allegations of abuse, violence, gang affiliation, and also information about the potential sponsors of a UAC, including background information on any other adults that would be living at the same address. The MOA also required ICE to share with HHS information contained in ICE databases on the criminal and immigration histories of the potential sponsors and all adult members in sponsor households so that HHS could make more complete suitability determinations before handing a child off to a sponsor. Anyone concerned about the safety of children recognizes that this is a good thing.
Through this agreement, ICE determined that about 80 percent of the sponsors taking custody of UACs and other individuals in sponsor households were in the country illegally. In 2018, ICE started arresting illegal aliens seeking to become sponsors of UACs, many of whom had criminal records in addition to their unlawful immigration status. This undoubtedly prevented a lot of child exploitation, and likely had the added benefit of discouraging the smuggling of additional children to the U.S. border, many of whom are harmed on their way to the United States.
When the Democrats took control of the House (and congressional spending), one of the party’s first acts was to gut this information-sharing effort via the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019” (H. J. Res. 31). With few exceptions, the funding bill prohibited DHS from arresting or deporting a sponsor, potential sponsor, or any individuals in their households based on information obtained from HHS. The exceptions would be where a background check reveals the sponsor (or a household member) has a felony conviction or pending charge for certain crimes such as child abuse, sex abuse, child pornography, an association with a business that employs minors unrelated to the sponsors, or an association with a prostitution organization.
This immediately blocked ICE from making arrests of known illegal aliens, a key part of the agency’s mission. And although the exemptions that would allow for some enforcement sound helpful, the reality is that most illegal aliens have no known background whatsoever. The law means that adults with unknown backgrounds living in the United States illegally can travel to the border, pick up an illegal alien child with an unknown background, and disappear into our country. It also means child smuggling rings can continue with a reduced fear of being held accountable by federal law enforcement. The new Congress should inquire about the results of this prohibition and require ICE to list the number of UAC sponsors it has reviewed in the past two years, the number with criminal records, the number with criminal records that include the types of crimes listed in the congressional prohibition, and the number of sponsors ICE has arrested.
One of the Democrats seemingly happy to assist in the smuggling of children was then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) who said, “It’s outrageous,” when asked about ICE arresting illegal aliens in the United States seeking to take custody of smuggled children. In fact, it was Harris who inspired the funding bill language prohibiting ICE from arresting sponsors. Months before, in November 2018, Harris issued a press release announcing her own legislation to prohibit immigration enforcement on UACs, their potential sponsors, and any other random adult living at the address where the child would be sent to live.
Unlike the funding bill prohibition that carved out at least some limited exceptions for sponsors with child abuse or sex crimes on their records, Harris’s bill had no exceptions for immigration enforcement. Under Harris’s legislation, if ICE were to discover through cooperation with HHS that a potential UAC sponsor is in the United States illegally with multiple convictions for child sex abuse on their record, Harris would require ICE to look the other way and never arrest or deport that criminal alien. Not only did Harris’s bill ensure dangerous criminal illegal aliens would be allowed to remain in the United States, it also would have transferred $220 million out of ICE’s already-appropriated 2019 budget, the majority of which would go to non-profit organizations for providing social services (e.g., “acculturation”, “therapeutic”, and “legal services”) to the UACs and their sponsors.
As Harris essentially declared her support for the continued smuggling of children and the release of violent criminal aliens into our communities, it should not come as a surprise that the smuggling of children — and subsequent exploitation at worksites — has exploded during Harris’s term as vice president. Naturally, she’s had nothing to say about the horrific fallout from her policies. “We will ultimately be judged as a society by how we treat our children,” explained Harris in her anti-enforcement press release. How does Kamala Harris believe she should be judged?
President Biden signed a funding bill in December 2022 that continues the prohibition on arrests of most illegal alien sponsors identified through information-sharing between ICE and HHS. The question now turns to whether the Republican Party, which took control of the House in January, will allow this prohibition to continue in future funding bills. Since the Biden administration has dramatically narrowed the scope of immigration enforcement, and since eliminating this prohibition would likely not result in ICE arrests under the current administration, Congress should consider mandating cooperation between ICE and HHS and requiring ICE to arrest illegal aliens who seek to sponsor children arriving at U.S. borders. Just as congressional Democrats prohibited ICE from making arrests of UAC sponsors via funding bill, congressional Republicans can require ICE to make these arrests via a funding bill.
Conclusion. The Biden administration has chosen, as a matter of policy, to encourage child exploitation and the smuggling and trafficking of children to the U.S. border by reducing the enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws. This policy preference is found in many additional contexts outside of the UAC sponsorship and worksite issues discussed here. For example, the Biden administration’s political appointee to run ICE’s legal division has testified in favor of ending cooperative partnerships between ICE and sheriffs under the 287(g) program despite the fact that they have led to arrests of numerous illegal aliens with records for sex assaults on children. The administration has ended one of these partnerships, and is choosing to not take into custody many criminal aliens identified by sheriffs. Not surprisingly, the Biden administration is arresting fewer criminal aliens than the Trump administration, as detailed in its own annual reports.
Days after the New York Times investigation into what it calls “the explosive growth of migrant child labor throughout the United States”, the Biden administration announced a new plan to address the issue. The plan includes setting up a task force, a national strategic enforcement initiative, and calls on Congress to increase penalties for child labor. The plan fails to address the policies that have led to increased illegal immigration of children, however. Until the United States commits to sustained enforcement of our immigration laws, including robust arrests and removals of illegal aliens through a whole-of-government approach, children will continue to be smuggled and unscrupulous individuals will continue to exploit them.