Former Health and Human Services (HHS) official-turned-whistleblower Tara Lee Rodas on Wednesday accused the U.S. government in a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing of becoming a “middleman” in a multi-billion dollar migrant trafficking operation at the southern border.
Since President Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president over two years ago, more than 3.5 million illegal immigrants have crossed the southern border. Since January 2021, border patrol agents have encountered over 356,000 unaccompanied minors at the southern border, most of whom authorities released into the U.S.
Committee members referenced a recent New York Times report alleging that HHS could not reach more than 85,000 children after they began living with their sponsors. The report further detailed allegations about unaccompanied children unlawfully working in dangerous conditions.
Rodas, who worked with an inspector general’s office with the government agency, first blew the whistle two years ago, where she alleged witnessing firsthand “the horrors of child trafficking and exploitation.”
During the hearing, she told members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security, and Enforcement that when HHS officials encounter migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, they deliver the minor to a sponsor — most of whom are not legally allowed in the country — only to have them pay off a debt to the cartels by exploiting them into cheap labor, commercial sex, gangs, and more.
“Today, children will work overnight shifts at slaughterhouses, factories, and restaurants to pay their debts to smugglers and traffickers,” Rodas said. “Today, children will be sold for sex. Today, children will call a hotline to report they are being abused, neglected, and trafficked — and we don’t know if they’re going to get the help they need. For nearly a decade, unaccompanied children have been suffering in the shadows.”
Two years ago, Biden officials dismantled a Trump-era requirement that vets sponsors and performs background checks in the sponsor’s household, many of whom, California Republican Congressman Tom McClintock said, are involved in smuggling the children in the first place.
Rodas began volunteering to help the Biden administration with the crisis at the southern border as part of Operation Artemis, where she helped emergency intakes for refugee resettlement that aimed to reunite children with sponsors at the Pomona Fairplex in California.
“I thought I was going to help place children in loving homes,” Rodas said. “Instead, I discovered that children are being trafficked through a sophisticated network that begins with recruiting and home country smuggling to the U.S. border and ends when [Office of Refugee Resettlement] delivers a child to a sponsor.”
Rodas identified some sponsors as members of a transnational criminal organization engaging in human trafficking that view children as commodities and assets used for earning income.
“Whether it’s intentional or not, it could be argued that the United States government has become the middleman in a large-scale multi-billion dollar child trafficking operation that is run by bad actors seeking to profit off of the lives of children,” she said.
Democrat subcommittee members attempted to discredit Rodas’ claims and question the accuracy of the New York Times report during the hearing.
Lawmakers used key witness Robert Carey, former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration, who said during his tenure, 90% of children were reunified with their families while affirming some of those follow-up calls made to the sponsors went unanswered.
“However, not answering a phone call, I do not believe constitutes losing a child,” Carey said, adding the sponsors likely did not answer for various reasons, including refusing to take a call from an unknown number or out of fear of speaking with a trafficker.
Carey further noted to lawmakers that the refugee resettlement office does not have the authority to track or investigate what happens to the children upon reunification.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra defended the agency last month following the New York Times report, saying that Congress limits the agency’s authority.
“I have never heard that number of 85,000, I don’t know where it comes from and … so I would say it doesn’t sound at all to be realistic, and what we do is we try and follow up as best we can with these kids,” he said, according to Fox News. “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.”
Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, told committee members during Wednesday’s hearing that Becerra revealed in a video that the department’s goal was to release kids faster with fewer questions to make it a more efficient assembly line.
“And this assembly line is staffed by crony contractors spending billions of taxpayer dollars on what is now a pipeline for child labor trafficking,” Vaughn said.
Former domestic policy advisor Susan Rice, who stepped down from her role last week, also responded to the report saying her officials showed 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.