'Heartbreaking and unconscionable': Biden admin ignored migrant child labor warnings

'Heartbreaking and unconscionable': Biden admin ignored migrant child labor warnings
Image via Gage Skidmore.

"I feel like short of protesting in the streets, I did everything I could to warn them," said one former official. "They just didn't want to hear it."

The Biden administration received repeated warnings from both within and outside of the federal government in recent years about a rise in the exploitation of migrant children for child labor, but ignored the evidence it was presented with and in some cases retaliated against whistleblowers, an extensive report by The New York Times showed late Monday.

According to the report, officials in the Biden administration including Susan Rice, director of the U.S. Domestic Policy Council, oversaw the loosening of restrictions on vetting potential sponsors for unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18 as emergency shelters that were set up to house the minors struggled to meet demand in 2021. Reports of the problem also reached Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

At least five staffers at the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told the newspaper that they raised concerns about the welfare of children who were sent to live with improperly vetted sponsors, and that they were retaliated against by officials who were growing "exasperated" with employees who insisted the department take steps to protect the minors in its care.

The report includes accounts from a former official at HHS who oversaw the government's program for unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18, a senior employee at an immigrant rights advocacy group, and an immigration lawyer who worked in 2021 vetting prospective sponsors for unaccompanied minors.

The attorney, Linda Brandmiller, told the Times that she immediately flagged at least two suspicious potential sponsors who had contacted HHS to offer to take in some of the unaccompanied minors, allowing them to leave the emergency shelters that had been set up for an influx of young migrants over the U.S.-Mexico border.

One person explicitly said they planned to employ three underage boys at a construction company, and another said they could take in two children who would then have to work off the cost of their travel.

Brandmiller told the shelter she was working at in Texas that no children should be sent to the sponsors and warned that a 14-year-old boy had already been sent to one of the people, as well as emailing HHS supervisors and saying, "This is urgent."

At least one boy was sent to one of the sponsors despite Brandmiller's warnings, and she was abruptly fired from her job with no explanation a few days later.

As such instances of retaliation have been taking place, said Times reporter Hannah Dreier, "the number of children being trafficked or exploited has skyrocketed."

As Common Dreams has reported, companies including Packers Sanitation Services Inc. and Hyundai have been found in recent months to rely on the labor of migrants under the age of 18, in violation of child labor laws. According to the Times, Rice's team was briefed regularly for several months on Packers' employment of more than 100 Spanish-speaking children in meatpacking facilities where they operated the industrial cleaning company's equipment and in some cases were injured while using Packers' sanitation chemicals.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh told the Times that his department frequently included data about skyrocketing levels of child labor in weekly cabinet-level meetings at the White House, and the agency updated its official data in December to show that child labor law violations had soared by 69% since 2018.

"We sent reports to the White House, so they knew we were working on this stuff," Walsh told the Times.

According to the Times, officials at the Labor Department and HHS each said that the other department was responsible for ensuring that unaccompanied minors were not being exploited for child labor.

Jallyn Sualog, a former career HHS employee who helped oversee the division responsible for migrant children, warned her superiors in 2021 that she had heard reports of children who had been sent to sponsors who'd lied about their identities or who planned to exploit them.

"If nothing continues to be done, there will be a catastrophic event," Sualog told her supervisors, before filing a complaint with the HHS Office of the Inspector General—after which she was removed from her position.

"I feel like short of protesting in the streets, I did everything I could to warn them," Sualog told the Times. "They just didn't want to hear it."

The result of the administration's refusal to listen to whistleblowers including Sualog and Brandmiller was called "heartbreaking and unconscionable" by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), an economic justice nonprofit group.

Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro decried the "stunning lack of oversight and accountability by the Biden administration."

"Imagine if our government spent its time and energy protecting immigrant children from being exploited through child labor," said progressive policy group Justice Democrats, "instead of on separating families and putting immigrants in cages."

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