Carolina Yoc is 15 years old; she entered the United States alone to live with a relative she did not know. Once inside the border, she was moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now, she spends her nights working in a factory with other young workers, stuffing plastic bags of cereal into passing yellow cartons. She is not the only child awake and working. Oscar Lopez, a ninth grader who also entered the United States’ border without a parent, is working overnight in a South Dakota sawmill. He finds himself working overnight shifts often, these shifts sometimes totaling 14 hours. Carolina and Oscar are not the only children who were unaccompanied upon entry into the country and are now being exploited for labor. Their stories, now more than ever, show why it is crucial for legislators to set partisan interests aside and address this violation of human rights.
In February and April of this year, The New York Times released two pieces detailing the stories above and exposing the widespread mistreatment of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These articles examined the stories of 13- and 14-year-olds being put to work in factories, construction sites, and slaughterhouses. Instead of being able to go to school with a full night’s sleep, these children are forced to work through the night, causing them to be unfocused and unproductive during the school day (if they can even go to school).
Since the pandemic, more than 250,000 UACs have crossed the south border and come into the United States. After crossing the border, they are taken into custody by the HHS and resettled by its department called the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The ORR’s sole focus and responsibility is to ensure the wellbeing and safe placement of those who cross the border looking to find safety. However, the ORR is overwhelmed with UACs, as is border security.
The reason for this can be traced back to criminal organizations such as MS-13, who see loosened border restrictions as an opportunity. Once there are enough children brought to the U.S., the gangs flood the border and create openings for smuggling illicit substances and materials. Due to the high number of migrants processed, Border Patrol agents are unable to respond to other threats—such as these openings. Assuming an unaccompanied child makes it to the border, once inside, they are thrown into the system. These children were abandoned by the ORR, are offered no method of recourse, and have no protection from the agency that forced their settlement in the United States.
Once processed through the system, unaccompanied migrant children become a kind of workforce that is unregulated and commonly abused. Why isn’t the government addressing this problem? The answer is that the government has been too busy creating it. Not only has the current administration relaxed border security making entrance to the U.S. more expedient, but the HHS is actively moving children through the system as quickly as possible, resulting in a lack of security and safety for these children.
Not only does this expedited system open the child up to abuse and mistreatment, but it also allows the ORR to bypass accountability for the children so long as it helps them meet deadlines. The lack in oversight and accountability does not stop there, once a child is resettled, the ORR conducts a limited few “check-ins.” These “check-ins” involve the ORR calling the individual or organization a child has been settled with. After calling three times, if the individual or organization has not picked up, they are marked as “not reached.” After being marked as “not reached,” the ORR stops trying to contact and their “responsibility” ends.
Because of this system, 85,000 migrant children are unaccounted for in America. These children are left at the mercy of family or sponsors who may not have their best interests at heart, are offered no method of recourse, and have no protection from the agency that forced their settlement in the United States. With loosened border security, a call has been sent out to drug cartels, gangs, and transnational human trafficking organizations. America has gift-wrapped its border as an opportunity for criminals and invited the exploitation and abuse of thousands of children.