FIRST ON FOX: Over 70 Republicans in the House are increasing the pressure on the Biden administration after reports that officials have been unable to contact tens of thousands of unaccompanied child migrants released to sponsors — and that many have been trafficked into forced labor.
Led by Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., the 76 lawmakers wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra seeking detailed answers about reports in the New York Times that HHS has been unable to contact 85,000 child migrants and that the surge in child migrants at the border has coincided with an “explosive” growth in child labor in the U.S.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics show the number of unaccompanied minors has surged from 33,239 in fiscal year 2020 to more than 146,000 in fiscal year 2021 and 152,000 in fiscal year 2022. The lawmakers note that reflected a 400% increase from FY20.
After child migrants are encountered at the southern border they are transferred from CBP to HHS, where efforts are made to release them to a sponsor — typically a parent or relative, often ones in the country illegally.
The New York Times detailed a rise in child exploitation, where children are pressed into forced labor, sometimes to pay back their smuggling costs. It has led to concerns that, by transporting children to sponsors, the U.S. is contributing to child labor trafficking. The Times reported how officials reportedly ignored signs of “explosive” growth in the child labor force and how officials scrambled to clear shelters that were at capacity.
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“These children are sent by their parents and drawn to our country for economic opportunity. Then, our systems and the protections they should be afforded fail them as a lack of vetting puts them in harm’s way,” the lawmakers said.
“It is the responsibility of HHS to properly vet the people these children are being released to and to protect them from being exploited. Yet, it has been reported that caseworkers feel rushed to move children out of government custody quickly and are not fully vetting the people to whom the children are released. Thus, putting these minors in dangerous environment,” the letter continued.
Among the lawmakers signing the letter are House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Majority Whip Tom Emmer. A DHS spokesperson told Fox Digital on Thursday that the agency “responds to Congressional correspondence directly via official channels, and the Department will continue to respond appropriately to Congressional oversight.”
The Biden administration has pinned the broader migrant crisis on hemispheric-wide conditions that have sparked a surge in migration, but Republicans have attributed the spike to policies by the administration that they say encourage people to travel to the border.
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“We are particularly heartbroken to read reports of children contacting HHS after their release to their sponsors in hope of the agency intervening, with no follow-up. The policies of this administration are enriching the cartels and transnational criminal organizations, who are profiting from the pain, abuse and exploitation of these children as they smuggle them into the country,” the GOP lawmakers said.
As part of their oversight, lawmakers ask how many children have been released to sponsors who are not their parents and how many sponsors are not related to the child by blood, as well as processes about interagency communication, and the checks for placing children with sponsors.
They also ask how many DHS investigations have been opened into child trafficking and what the process is for child welfare agencies to report to the HHS.
“Recent reports have shined a light on the neglect and abuse happening to unaccompanied children — all while HHS and DHS knowingly turned a blind eye. It’s heartbreaking to think about the cruelty these children are enduring, from extortion at the hands of smugglers to intense, illegal labor practices,” Ciscomani said in a statement to Fox Digital. “Instead of ensuring the children are placed with caring, legitimate sponsors or reunited with their parents, this administration is incentivizing the activities that exploit and traumatize vulnerable, innocent children. As an immigrant and a dad of 6 young kids, I cannot stand by and allow these practices to continue.”
A DHS official told Fox Digital that it has continued its close coordination with HHS as it increases its capacity to care for unaccompanied minors and place them with appropriately vetted sponsors., while stressing that Border Patrol stations are not meant to hold children long-term.
“Our goal is to ensure that CBP has the continued capability to quickly and efficiently transfer unaccompanied minors after they are apprehended to HHS custody, as is required by U.S. law, and as is clearly in the best interest of the children,” the official said.
The official also reiterated the agency’s message to migrant families: “No matter what smugglers say, the United States continues to enforce its immigration laws, and families should not put their lives at risk by taking this dangerous journey.”
The letter comes amid growing pressure from Republicans on the administration, where both officials have been grilled about the Times’ reporting. Becerra was quizzed in March about the 85,000 number and indicated that the agency was 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.
He also expressed skepticism about the 85,000 number.
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“Those statistics you mentioned, as I said previously in regard to another question by one of your colleagues Those are unfamiliar to me,” Becerra told Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. “I have no idea where those statistics come from, if they’re based in reality or not. And we do everything we can to make sure any child, before we allow them to be released to a sponsor, that that sponsor has been vetted.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., recently asked DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a Senate hearing why he should not be impeached over the situation. Mayorkas accused Hawley of making “false statements” and highlighted DHS’ efforts to focus on worksite enforcement and investigating “unscrupulous employers” who employ children.
“One of the significant policy decisions that we have made is to focus our worksite enforcement, investigative efforts, our criminal investigative efforts on unscrupulous employers that exploit individuals because of their vulnerabilities. And that includes underage workers,” Mayorkas said.
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