An immigrant mother from Cuba sits with her sons after crossing the border from Mexico, as they await processing by the U.S. Border Patrol, on May 19, 2022 in Yuma, Arizona (Mario Tama/Getty Images).
WASHINGTON — U.S. House members in a hearing on Tuesday questioned the head of a federal agency in charge of unaccompanied migrant children about multiple reports of their exploitation as workers in U.S. meatpacking plants and elsewhere.
Republicans and Democrats on the House Oversight & Accountability Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs agreed that immigration policy needs to be improved in connection with unaccompanied kids, but they differed when it came to solutions and in placing blame.
Republicans faulted the Biden administration for recent reports of exploited migrant children, arguing that it’s due to the administration’s approach on immigration.
Democrats pushed back, arguing that child labor laws should be tightened — even as 11 states move to roll back those protections — and the companies that take advantage of unaccompanied migrant children should be held accountable.
Robin Dunn Marcos, the director of the Office of Refuge Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, or ORR, was the sole hearing witness.
“Child labor exploitation has no place in our society,” she said.
A year-long investigation by the New York Times found hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children working dangerous jobs in violation of child labor laws, which several of the lawmakers referred to in their questioning of ORR’s vetting process for sponsors.
The Department of Labor recently issued civil fines for Packers Sanitation Services Inc., a company that cleans meatpacking plants, for $1.5 million for employing children as young as 13 to work in dangerous conditions.
Dunn Marcos defended ORR, saying it works quickly to match unaccompanied children with their relatives, and vets sponsors through background checks. She added that the agency and the Department of Labor are working together and sharing information to “prevent and respond to child labor issues.”
The subcommittee chair, Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, said the Biden administration’s immigration policies at the U.S.- Mexico border “have led to historic encounters of unaccompanied alien children that have overwhelmed ORR and endanger migrant children,” and also criticized the agency for not properly scrutinizing sponsors who take in unaccompanied children.
Grothman questioned Dunn Marcos on how frequently the agency has contact when children are placed with sponsors.
She said the agency does provide “well-being calls,” but that the agency’s “custodial custody ends when they are discharged (to sponsors).”
The top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Robert Garcia, a California freshman who as a child was an immigrant, said that Congress needs to make sure ORR is fully funded, so it can continue to reunite families and place children with sponsors in the U.S. who are their relatives.
“We also need to have a serious conversation about how we make sure that we’re fully enforcing our labor laws and holding corporations accountable when they knowingly and illegally profit from child labor,” Garcia said.
The most recent state to revise child labor laws is Iowa, where after an all-night debate on Monday, the state Senate passed a bill that allows 14- to 17-year-olds to work in industries currently prohibited for minors such as roofing, demolition and manufacturing as a part of an employer or school training program.
Democratic freshman Rep. Maxwell Frost of Florida also asked Dunn Marcos about sponsors in relation to an immigration package that House Judiciary members are planning to mark up this week. A section of that bill would mandate that ORR share information about a sponsor’s house address and name with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Frost asked her how that bill would impact ORR’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.
“Steps like that create a chilling impact on sponsors coming forward,” she said, adding that the agency believes the best practice is to place an unaccompanied child with their families.
One Republican, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, asked the director why the agency was not recommending criminal charges for parents of unaccompanied children. Perry said he considers unaccompanied minors to be abandoned, which many states consider a felony or misdemeanor.
ORR is not a law enforcement agency, Dunn Marcos said, and reiterated that the main purpose of the agency is to reunite separated families and place unaccompanied children with vetted sponsors.
Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat who is running for a U.S. Senate seat, said that the Department of Health and Human Services needs to do more because the number of unaccompanied minors has increased since 2016.
The number of unaccompanied children has actually been increasing since 2008, according to migration data from Syracuse University.
From October 2021 to September 2022, there were about 130,000 unaccompanied youth who were released to sponsors in the U.S., according to data from ORR.
Porter added that she is also concerned about “who isn’t on this panel,” referring to the Department of Labor investigations.
“Corporate America needs to be held accountable for putting children in danger to boost their profits,” Porter said.
Some Republicans such as Clay Higgins of Louisiana and Andy Biggs of Arizona questioned whether all unaccompanied migrant children are really children, since some are teenagers, even though people under 18 generally are considered children under U.S. immigration law.
“As compassionate children of God, every American wants to just hug that child and care for that child, but that’s not the reality, America. What they’re talking about here is not a lost and abandoned and frightened small child,” Higgins said. “The vast majority of the so-called children, unaccompanied children, are actually undocumented, illegal young adults.”
According to fiscal year 2022 HHS data, unaccompanied children ages 0-12 account for 15% of cases, those ages 13-14 account for 13% of cases, those ages 15-16 account for 36% of cases and those who are 17 account for 36% of cases.
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