FIRST ON FOX: The conservative legal watchdog, America First Legal (AFL), is pushing the Biden administration for answers on reports that unaccompanied minors have been released from federal custody into the hands of traffickers.
In the wake of the crisis at the southern border, AFL has demanded answers through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the Administration for Children and Families — which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — to better understand how and if the administration is adequately safeguarding unaccompanied minors after they are released into the U.S.
HHS DOCUMENTS REVEAL INCIDENTS OF SEXUAL AND PHYSICAL ABUSE OF UNACCOMPANIED MIGRANT CHILDREN
In August, reporting by Bloomberg Law showed that federal law enforcement officials were investigating situations in which minors were suspected of being exploited in labor trafficking schemes.
The director of the Justice Department’s (DOJ) Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU) sent a July email to officials in four other agencies warning against “indicators of labor exploitation and/or potential labor trafficking of unaccompanied minors in Alabama” and “multiple other jurisdictions.”
“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,” Hilary Axam said, according to the news outlet.
Experts are concerned that the decades-old labor trafficking practices have become an increasingly urgent problem as the number of unaccompanied minors illegally entering the U.S. has skyrocketed.
“We are witnessing the largest wave of minors being illegally smuggled and trafficked,” AFL President and former Trump adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News. “And again, no sign of slowing down even a little bit.”
“There’s never been anything like the kind of sustained blow to illegal minors that we’re seeing now,” he added. “The consequences for society are far-reaching. It’s a catastrophe on every available metric.”
In 2021 alone, over 132,000 unaccompanied minors have been encountered by border officials, a figure that reflects nearly four times the number of minors encountered in 2020 and a near 40% increase from the previous high in 2019.
HHS has struggled to find a balance in locating safe housing for children and ensuring they do not stay in federal custody for too long, a problem dating back to the Obama administration when unaccompanied minor arrivals first spiked.
Ten years ago, the U.S. reported 6,000 arrivals of unaccompanied children, and 68,000 minors were encountered at the border by 2014.
Miller said the reason illegal border crossings by unaccompanied minors has spiked is due to a provision the Biden administration removed from Title 42.
“Unaccompanied minors have been categorically exempt from Title 42,” Miller explained.
Under the controversial policy first established by the Trump administration, federal officials are able to sidestep usual immigration proceedings to protect against the spread of COVID-19, which has meant more individuals will face deportation if they enter the country illegally.
“And so the message to every teenager in the world … the message to every adult in the world who wants to send their minor here illegally: The border to them is completely wide open,” Miller said. “It’s very unsafe to the minors; it’s very unsafe to America, and it is completely antithetical to our national sovereignty.”
US FOSTER CARE SYSTEM ALREADY STRETCHED TO THE MAX AS UNACCOMPANIED MINORS CONTINUE TO CROSS SOUTHERN BORDER
Hotspots for child labor trafficking have been identified in agriculture-rich places like Enterprise, Alabama, and Woodburn, Oregon, which are now under investigation by federal officials, Bloomberg first reported.
The locations were reportedly identified as suspicious after it was discovered HHS had released dozens of children in the area, in some cases to the same sponsor.
One zip code in Enterprise, which was identified as having a number of chicken slaughterhouses, has been barred from receiving any more minors from federal custody unless a biological parent receives the child.
A similar practice has reportedly been enacted in Woodburn, an area surrounded by vast agricultural fields.
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AFL has asked the administration to provide all documents relating to “post-release check-ins” for minors received since Jan. 20, 2021. Fox News could not immediately reach HHS for comment.
The group additionally pointed to a concern relating to children placed with undocumented adult sponsors in the U.S.
“Overwhelmingly, sponsors of UAC lack lawful status themselves — and oftentimes are the very same people who paid to have the UAC illegally brought to the United States,” AFL wrote in a FOIA request viewed by Fox News. “HHS’s placement of those UAC with those sponsors simply completes the last stage of a smuggling cycle by substituting the United States for the smuggling organizations.”
The group argued that the lack of checks and balances on these individuals has deepened the humanitarian crisis, and requested that HHS provide all information on the children who have been placed with undocumented adults and any missed court appearances thereafter.