US lost thousands of migrant children released from custody as DOJ investigates labour trafficking, reports

Department of Justice warned Health and Human Services to watch for ‘red flags’ amid probe into unaccompanied minors being exploited in agricultural processing plants

Justin Vallejo
New York
Thursday 02 September 2021 00:01 BST
Migrant caravan gathers at the US-Mexico border

The Biden administration has reportedly lost contact with nearly 40 per cent of migrant children released from custody.

It leaves the federal government unable to contact thousands of unaccompanied minors who entered the country illegally even as authorities investigate whether the migrants are being trafficked and exploited for child labour, according to a report.

According to data obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by Axios, calls made to released children or their sponsors from January to May went unanswered up to 37 per cent of the time.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) made 14,600 calls to check in with the minors 30 days after their release from child migrant detention centres, Axios reported.

Of those, the Department was unable to reach the child or their sponsor in 4,890 instances. The ratio of unanswered calls grew from 26 per cent in January to the height of 37 per cent in May.

The full picture of lost children could be considerably higher as the reported number of calls outlined in the FOIA data is less than half of those reportedly released from custody.

While the HHS data showed less than 15,000 follow-up calls, Axios reported that the Department discharged 32,000 children between the inauguration of Joe Biden in January and the end of May.

Coinciding with those five months, more than 65,000 unaccompanied minors illegally crossed the southern border with Mexico, the report said.

The scale of misplaced children comes as the US Justice Department’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit warned some migrant children may have been released to labor traffickers and put to work in poultry plants and agricultural processing facilities, according to Bloomberg Law.

An internal email obtained by the outlet showed the Justice Department wrote to the FBI, the Labor Department, the Department of Homeland Security and HSS on 21 July warning them of "indicators of labour exploitation".

“Some of these situations appear to involve dozens of unaccompanied minors all being released to the same sponsor and then exploited for labour in poultry processing or similar industries without access to education,” wrote the DOJ’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit director Hilary Axam.

HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the FOIA call data, but a spokesperson told Axios that many sponsors, often relatives, don’t want to be contacted and do not return calls.

“While we make every effort to voluntarily check on children after we unite them with parents or sponsors and offer certain post-unification services, we no longer have legal oversight once they leave our custody,” the spokesperson said.

The “Safety and Well Being Follow Up Calls” are required by the Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement as part of its process to close case files on the children.

The purpose of the call is to determine whether the child is still residing with the sponsor, is enrolled in or attending school, is aware of upcoming court dates, and is safe.

HSS stopped sending children to at least two agriculture-dense areas under federal investigation for trafficking, according to anonymous sources quoted by Bloomberg.

Enterprise, in Alabama, and Woodburn, in Oregon, were both flagged as suspicious after HSS released dozens of children to the same sponsors, with the DOJ reportedly saying there were a “significant numbers of minors and sponsors involved".

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