Whistleblowers say U.S. government's poor oversight may have led to migrant kids' working in unsafe and illegal jobs
A watchdog group representing federal whistleblowers raised new concerns to Congress on Wednesday about the performance of the Health and Human Services Department, the agency tasked with sheltering unaccompanied migrant children after they cross the border, saying poor oversight may have led to children working in unsafe and illegal conditions inside the United States.
HHS finds homes for unaccompanied minors, sending them to live with adult sponsors who may be relatives or family friends. In the report, submitted to HHS and Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, D.-Ill., the Government Accountability Project said whistleblowers it represents allege the agency’s case management system may have failed to match all children with thoroughly vetted sponsors and did not track the children properly after they left government care.
The whistleblowers are federal workers who were detailed to work at an emergency site in Fort Bliss, Texas, in spring and summer 2021, early in the Biden administration, when the number of migrant children crossing the border without a parent or guardian rose sharply. Many of the previously publicly disclosed concerns dealt with living conditions, the spread of Covid, incompetent management and sexual misconduct.
Though the Biden administration says it has since improved the case management process, the whistleblowers say the problems they saw in early- to mid-2021 may have let children go to homes in which adults would either force or allow them to work in unsafe environments like slaughterhouses.
The report sent to HHS on Wednesday said whistleblowers worry problems in the system at Fort Bliss led to “egregious errors in discharge procedures.”
“These concerns included, for example, the lack of a coordinated case management tracking system, resulting in hundreds of children languishing at the facility for weeks without ever talking with a case manager; egregious errors in discharge procedures, with some children listed as having been discharged despite still being on site in HHS custody,” the report said.
HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The whistleblowers, federal employees who were detailed to Fort Bliss from various government agencies, also allege there was not a good system to raise problems they noticed.
“Many children suffered in silence, and when whistleblowers raised concerns, they were ignored,” according to the report.
NBC News has reported extensively on a growing trend in migrant children, particularly from Guatemala, working in dangerous jobs in the meatpacking industry.
Immigration and child advocates say the rise in unaccompanied children who crossed the border starting in March 2021 was spurred in part by the exceptions the Biden administration made to Covid border restrictions, which allowed children to enter without their parents but stopped adults and adults traveling with children from entering the country to claim asylum. That, combined with the need for children to repay the smugglers who brought them to the U.S. and financially support themselves and their families back home, set up a dangerous climate for migrant children to be exploited for labor in dangerous jobs, sometimes in the meat and poultry industries.
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“Ultimately, the failures of HHS to protect children in its care and custody, manage their cases to ensure their safe placement and oversee its own operations and contractors, has served as a conduit between labor supply and demand within the U.S. food system,” the Government Accountability Project said.
When questions arose earlier this year over whether HHS did a thorough job vetting the adult sponsors with whom children were sent to live, the agency issued a report revealing 344 unaccompanied migrant children were released to live with nonrelative sponsors hosting three or more unaccompanied children. The revelation raised questions among advocates who worried that some minors were being sponsored by strangers who could exploit them for child labor.
The inspector general for HHS recently found that staff at Fort Bliss lacked training and that safeguards were removed, which “potentially increased children’s risk of release to unsafe sponsors.”
HHS has more than 10,000 migrant children in its care as the number of children crossing unaccompanied has risen again in recent weeks. While Fort Bliss no longer operates as an emergency intake site for children, HHS just opened a new facility in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Since Fort Bliss, HHS has expanded its case management system so that children placed with nonrelated sponsors receive additional check-ins. The Government Accountability Project told HHS that it still needs to make more reforms to ensure children are placed in safe homes.