The Biden administration has long touted its success in processing unaccompanied minor children through Customs and Border Protection and, more recently, through Health and Human Services. But a new report from Axios indicates that the United States government has lost track of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children released to sponsors, often relatives, in the U.S., raising questions over where those children are and whether they are protected.
The number of child migrants crossing the United States-Mexico border has continued to set records. In March and April, thousands of unaccompanied children ended up in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, and in August, typically a quiet month for border crossings, border agents took in more than 800 child migrants in a single day — a one-day record for the Department of Homeland Security, per U.S. News and World Report.
Thousands of those children were being held in CBP custody for an extended period of time, but earlier this year, the Biden administration authorized the Department of Health and Human Services to operate temporary shelters for child migrants whose relatives or sponsors inside the U.S. could not be found.
As of a month ago, there were more than 14,000 kids in temporary HHS shelters, per Reuters. At least one of those shelters, Ft. Bliss in Texas, has been the subject of a number of whistleblower complaints, alleging that children housed there are neglected, live in squalid conditions, and are suffering from depression.
Around 65,000 children are believed to have passed through CBP custody from January through May of 2021
Now, Axios reports that the children the Biden administration released from custody, typically to relatives or sponsors, may not be tracked and cared for as expected. “Between President Biden’s inauguration and the end of May, HHS discharged 32,000 children and teens — but the government placed fewer than 15,000 follow-up calls,” the outlet said.
“Roughly one-in-three calls made to released migrant kids or their sponsors between January and May went unanswered, raising questions about the government’s ability to protect minors after they’re released to family members or others in the U.S.,” the outlet reported Thursday.
“During the first five months of the year, care providers made 14,600 required calls to check in with migrant minors released from shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. These minors typically were taken in by relatives or other vetted sponsors,” Axios continued. “In 4,890 of those instances, workers were unable to reach either the migrant or the sponsor. The percentage of unsuccessful calls grew, from 26% in January to 37% in May, the data provided to Axios showed.”
Those children could be in danger; federal law enforcement officials are reportedly investigating whether some of the teenaged migrants were handed over to labor traffickers and are now working in poultry processing plants, per Bloomberg.
“Since we spoke last month about indicators of labor exploitation and/or potential labor trafficking of unaccompanied minors in Alabama, [the U.S. Justice Department’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit] has become aware of similar concerns in multiple other jurisdictions,” a Biden administration Department of Justice email, obtained by Bloomberg, read. “Some of these situations appear to involve dozens of unaccompanied minors all being released to the same sponsor and then exploited for labor in poultry processing or similar industries without access to education.”
“DOJ declined to comment. The U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, which enforces child labor laws, ‘is aware of these concerns and is cooperating with the appropriate law enforcement agencies,’” Bloomberg noted.