Enticed by the promise that their children could go to school in America, numerous Guatemalan parents paid to have their children smuggled into the U.S. No one knows how many made it across the border, but some of the children were detained by immigration official and transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Once in the hands of the federal government, the children should have been safe. Instead, the HHS gave at least a dozen children over to human traffickers.
One group of children was sent to Marion, Ohio where they were forced to work at egg farms for six or seven days a week, twelve hours per day. According to a U.S. Senate report, the children were forced to undertake such tasks as de-beaking chickens and cleaning chicken coops.
The minor victims were also forced to live in trailers owned by the traffickers. Some of the housing was found to be “unsanitary and unsafe, with no bed, no heat, no hot water, no working toilets, and vermin.” If the kids didn’t work hard enough, the traffickers would threaten the victims and their family members with physical harm, and even death. One of the traffickers assaulted a boy and then called the victim’s father and threatened to shoot the father in the head if the minor victim did not work.
The traffickers used physical violence against the minor victims to keep them in line and to ensure they continued to do as they were told. The report notes that the traffickers “used a combination of threats, humiliation, deprivation, financial coercion, debt manipulation, and monitoring to create a climate of fear and helplessness that would compel [the victims’] compliance.”
“It is intolerable that human trafficking — modern-day slavery — could occur in our own backyard,” says Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). “But what makes the Marion cases even more alarming is that a U.S. government agency was responsible for delivering some of the victims into the hands of their abusers.”
The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that HHS failed to “run background checks on the adults in the sponsors’ households as well as secondary caregivers, failed to visit any of the sponsors’ homes; and failed to realize that a group of sponsors was accumulating multiple unrelated children. In August 2014, HHS permitted a sponsor to block a child-welfare case worker from visiting with one of the victims, even after the case worker discovered the child was not living at the address on file with HHS.”
The subcommittee concluded that, “HHS’s policies and procedures are inadequate to protect the children in the agency’s care.”
Since the beginning of FY2014, HHS has placed almost 90,000 unaccompanied immigrant minors with sponsors in the United States. But because of their carelessness and incompetence, HHS can’t say how many children were handed over to forced labor or sex traffickers. There could be hundreds, even thousands, of minors suffering abuse—all because the federal government failed in one of humanity’s most basic and important tasks: look out for the children and protect them from harm.