A Broken Immigration System: The Story of 1500 Lost Children

 

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 Photo by John Moore//Getty Images   

Photo by John Moore//Getty Images

 

Thousands of undocumented children venture across the American border each year, seeking to escape the cartel violence, poverty, and political strife that plague their home countries. Arriving primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, these children leave their parents and friends behind so they can taste the sweet joys of American freedom. These unaccompanied minors, however, are often deprived of the freedom they desire to find once they arrive in America. Upon arrival, these children are often cast aside by border patrol agents and handed over to sponsors who may be human traffickers.  

How could the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), who is supposed to protect these children upon arrival and settlement in America, allow this to possibly happen? The plight of these “unaccompanied alien children,” or “UACs,” is exacerbated by a broken immigration system in the U.S; one that is riddled with loopholes which allow human traffickers to take advantage of these children.

Once the migrant children arrive at the U.S. border, they are handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a department within the HHS, whose job is to place them with an appropriate adult sponsor. The sponsors’ primary tasks are to care for the children and ensure their arrival at future immigration hearings. These sponsors are often relatives of the children they receive, however, this is not always the case.

A 2016 senate report criticized the HSS and the ORR for enabling human traffickers to prey on this vulnerable group of children. The report exposed a disturbing truth to the public: the HHS, who is tasked with protecting the migrant children, was turning a blind eye to them. The report indicated that, in 2014, the HHS placed a number of UACs with sponsors who coerced them to enter a human trafficking ring in Marion, Ohio. Controlled by relentless labor traffickers, these migrant children were forced to work in dreadful conditions on an Ohio egg farm, named Trillium Farms.


The [2016 senate] report indicated that, in 2014, the HHS placed a number of UACs with sponsors who coerced them to enter a human trafficking ring in Marion, Ohio.


A representative from HHS recently admitted in a congressional hearing in April 2018 that, out of the 7,635 unaccompanied minors it attempted to reach this past Fall, it could only locate 1,475 of them. That is, there are roughly 1500 “lost” migrant children who have slipped through the cracks of the U.S. immigration system. The whereabouts of the other 6,160 children are known; the HHS calls confirmed their safe residence in the care of their sponsors. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio grieves the loss of the1500 children as he remarked that, “HHS has a responsibility to better track these children so they aren’t trafficked or abused, and so they show up at their court hearings.

These children are “lost” in the sense that the government cannot account for them. Most speculation concludes that many of these children have been handed over to traffickers who exploit them for their labor and services. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that victims of human trafficking in the U.S. are “almost exclusively immigrants.” These immigrants are largely targeted for a number of reasons, including their inability to speak English, lack of familiarity with American law, and fear of deportation.

How these children became “lost” can be articulated in two main reasons: 1) The HHS failed to conduct adequate background checks on potential sponsors and 2) The HHS failed to follow up with sponsors through phone calls. These phone calls are meant to check up on the children by ensuring they are enrolled in school and will appear at their future court hearing. By not taking these precautions seriously, the HHS has compromised their ability to track these children down and ensure they have been placed in a safe environment. Steve Wagner, an HHS official who testified in the April hearing, admitted “We don’t know these kids” and “We don’t follow up to ensure they go to [their immigration] hearing.


By not taking these precautions seriously, the HHS has compromised their ability to track these children down and ensure they have been placed in a safe environment.

 'A photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows the interior of a CBP facility in McAllen, Texas, on Sunday. Immigration officials have separated thousands of families who crossed the border illegally.' //  NPR

'A photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows the interior of a CBP facility in McAllen, Texas, on Sunday. Immigration officials have separated thousands of families who crossed the border illegally.' // NPR


While the United States strives to improve its immigration law, significant barriers remain, especially in the midst of Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. This highly controversial policy illuminates a sharp political divide in the U.S. -- most people fail to agree on how to best solve the immigration crisis. This policy, which is espoused and strictly enforced by attorney general Jeff Sessions, allows for the separation of parents from their children at the U.S. border if they are suspected of crossing illegally. Supporters of this highly debated policy urge that it improves immigration law. However, the lack of agreement on this matter only exacerbates the struggle to find a solution, which is something we can all agree is worth obtaining.

This “zero tolerance” immigration policy not only increases the number of UACs entering the country, but it exacerbates the struggle of HHS to account for all of the children pouring into the country. These children remain isolated and vulnerable as they are separated from their loved ones. Subsequently, minors enter the country alone, unaccounted for, and susceptible to the influences of human traffickers.

In the past couple of months, however, some improvements have been made regarding the safety of migrant children crossing the U.S. border. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security recently agreed to work together so they can reshape their policies and better screen potential sponsors. Additionally, at the April congressional hearing, HHS official Wagner remarked that the department was re-examining its laws to protect minors against smugglers and human traffickers that target them.


HHS official Wagner remarked that the department was re-examining its laws to protect minors against smugglers and human traffickers that target them.

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The public at large has also increased its advocacy towards the issue. Many have begun to speak out against what they believe to be a gross miscarriage of justice - losing children to a system that is supposed to protect them. In fact, a class-action lawsuit was filed this past March to fight against the heavily debated practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border. Together, these individual measures indicate a crucial shift in public attention towards this issue. This shift will help ensure that, over time, the U.S. will no longer have to pay the heavy toll of bearing “lost” children on its conscience.


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About the Author

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Sarah Beech is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin who is studying psychology and government. She is most passionate about fighting against the various human rights abuses that occur around us. In her free time she likes to watch Netflix, hang out with her friends, and try new restaurants. Her favorite quote is, "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" (from A Cinderella Story).