A whistleblower who viewed first-hand what she testified is a ‘sophisticated network’ of child migrant smuggling into forced labor and other forms of slavery is calling on Congress to act to crack down on the U.S. role in that network.
The hearing, ‘The Biden Border Crisis: Exploitation of Unaccompanied Alien Children,’ was held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security and Enforcement and included Health and Human Services (HHS) whistleblower Tara Lee Rodas as a witness.
Rodas, who was detailed with HHS at an Emergency Intake Site in Pomona, California, on Wednesday told lawmakers about what she experienced on the ground.
‘I thought I was going to help place children in loving homes. Instead, I discovered that children are being trafficked through a sophisticated network that begins with recruiting in their home country, smuggled to the U.S. border, and ends when [Office of Refugee Resettlement] delivers a child to a sponsor — some sponsors are criminals and traffickers and members of Transnational Criminal Organizations. Some sponsors view children as commodities and assets to be used for earning income — this is why we are witnessing an explosion of labor trafficking,’ Rodas said.
According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics, the number of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) who arrive at the border has swelled from 33,239 in fiscal year 2020 to more than 146,000 in fiscal year 2021 and 152,000 in fiscal year 2022. So far in fiscal year 2023, there have been more than 70,000 encounters of UACs.
When child migrants are encountered at the border, they are transferred into the custody of HHS and then united with a sponsor — typically a parent or family member already in the U.S.
But the administration has been hit by a number of New York Times reports detailing a rise in child exploitation, where children are forced into the labor force — sometimes to pay back their smuggling costs. It has led to concerns that, by transporting children to sponsors, the U.S. is involved in child trafficking. The Times reported how officials reportedly ignored signs of ‘explosive’ growth in the child labor force.
‘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 of the lives of children,’ Rodas said.
Rodas described how she saw children becoming captive to their ‘sponsors’ as they couldn’t seek help in English or Spanish and sponsors using multiple addresses to obtain sponsorships of children. Rodas said she does not see it as a political issue, but as a humanitarian issue, noting that it has been a crisis going on for nearly 10 years.
‘Realizing that we were not offering children the American dream, but instead putting them in modern-day slavery with wicked overlords, was a terrible revelation,’ Rodas said, adding that her life ‘will never be the same’ after what she saw.
Republicans have blamed the ongoing crisis on the Biden administration’s policies, which they say have encouraged illegal migration and for parents to put their children into the hands of smugglers. Democrats have noted that the issue predated the Biden administration, and have pointed to efforts being undertaken to increase oversight of sponsors, along with new task forces, greater information sharing and calls for greater funding.
Rodas told lawmakers that ‘it is my hope you’ll take action to end this crisis, to safeguard the lives of these vulnerable children.’
She called for greater oversight and transparency from HHS including from the Office of Inspector General, the stopping of ‘retaliation’ against whistleblowers, an end to a ‘culture of speed over safety’ and a requirement that sponsors report to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
‘As it is written: A wise man listens to advice, while a fool continues in his folly. HHS needs to be wise to care for these children,’ Rodas said.
Last month, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra pushed back on the agency being unable to contact 85,000 minors, and he also said HHS authorities are limited by Congress.
‘Congress has given us certain authorities. Our authorities end when we have found a suitable sponsor to place that child with. We try and do some follow-up, but neither the child or the sponsor is actually obligated to follow up with us,’ he said.
Meanwhile, domestic policy adviser Susan Rice — who left her role this week — responded to the Times report that her team was shown evidence of a growing migrant child labor crisis.
‘We were never informed of any kind of systematic problem with child labor or migrant child labor,’ she said.