American sponsors have subjected vulnerable Central American refugee children to sexual abuse, labor trafficking and starvation, according to a bipartisan report released on Friday by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. It confirmed similar findings by The Associated Press on Jan. 25 that identified more than two dozen cases of abuse and neglect. In one case, a trafficking ring in Marion, Ohio, forced six teens to work on an egg farm for 12 hours a day and did not allow them to attend school. In other states, fraudulent sponsors tried to get placements of children who were not related to them.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who chairs the subcommittee, said there were “serious, systemic defects” in the screening process at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for placing “uniquely vulnerable” unaccompanied children with supposed sponsors. In a statement on Thursday, he said the trafficking case in his state “could likely have been prevented if HHS had adopted common-sense measures for screening sponsors and checking in on the well-being of at-risk children — protections that are standard in foster care systems run by the states, including Ohio.”
Failure to properly investigate temporary placement homes and weak child protection policies have left young migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment. With more Central American children arriving daily, the U.S. government needs to strengthen, not weaken, its oversight of the homes where minors are placed.
After they cross into the U.S., some refugees turn themselves in to immigration authorities, asking for asylum. Others make their asylum pleas after being captured and detained. Under U.S. law, unaccompanied minors seeking asylum must be sent to a facility run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The agency then places children with families while their cases are processed. Sponsors — typically a friend or family member already in the United States — house the children and get them in school.
The resettlement office has internal procedures for conducting background checks and verifying that a sponsor is a friend or relative and not a human trafficker or someone with a criminal record. But according to the AP report, overwhelmed by the number of children needing placements, HHS began relaxing its placement procedures in 2014, when the arrivals of unaccompanied children reached record numbers.
The agency stopped fingerprinting adult sponsors and requiring original birth certificates to verify their identity. It started placing children before conducting criminal history checks of the sponsors and sometimes even before completing background information forms. More than 95,000 unaccompanied minors have been placed with sponsors since October 2013. While the AP investigation uncovered some of the abuses, many more are suspected. Harvard researcher Jacqueline Bhabha called the revelations “the tip of the iceberg.”
Increased refugee traffic is linked to growing gang- and drug-related violence in Central America. The current wave of immigration from the region fell in 2015 from the year before, but the number of Central American families and children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border rose dramatically during the traditionally slower months of October and November.
Last year El Salvador’s murder rate was more than 100 per 100,000 residents. In Honduras, it’s 61 per 100,000, rising to 74 per 100,000 in Tegucigalpa and 111 per 100,000 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city. (By comparison, in St. Louis, the city with the highest murder rate in the United States in 2015, it was 59 per 100,000 residents.) El Salvador has become so dangerous that the United States pulled Peace Corps volunteers out of the country earlier this month, citing security concerns. The Peace Corps program was suspended in Honduras in 2012. Much of the gang violence in Central America can be traced back to the civil wars of the 1980s, when young refugees fleeing those wars landed on U.S. streets and formed gangs. The United States deported gang members to their home countries, and they took the gangs with them, growing ever more violent.
Exposing these young refugees to abuse in sponsor homes compounds the suffering of children already scarred by violence while in transit and in their home countries. Central American minors face enormous risks as they travel to the United States through Mexico. This includes violence from Mexican kidnappers, robbers and rapists as well as the police. Mexico has intensified pursuit and deportation of Central American migrants with U.S. political and financial support.
Central American refugee children confront additional dangers in the United States. More than 7,700 have been deported without even getting a day in court. Advocates say that many never received notice of court dates and that more than 90 percent had no legal representation. Access to counsel is practically essential to successful asylum claims. A 2015 study by the Legal Service of Northern California found that 46 percent of asylum seekers represented by lawyers won their asylum claims, compared with only 16 percent of unrepresented applicants.
For many unaccompanied Central American children, denial of asylum means returning home to the violence they fled. A new initiative by the White House to deport Central American families and children threatens to further endanger their lives.
Protections for child migrants must begin with better screening of sponsor homes, at least up to the standards for scrutinizing foster homes. In December, HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee, requesting an additional $400 million to deal with the increasing number of unaccompanied young arrivals. But money alone will not solve the problem. The Senate report identified failure by HHS and the Department of Homeland Security to cooperate and assume responsibility for protecting the children. It also noted that the resettlement office “never codified its policies in regulations or subjected them to the public scrutiny and accountability.” These agencies must be held accountable and must establish adequate, transparent and publicly reviewed regulations to protect children.
Protection from abusive sponsors is crucial, but ultimately the children need a protected legal status in the United States. Deporting them back to the violence they fled is inexcusable. Barack Obama’s administration should halt deporting these children and the heightened immigration raids targeting Central American refugees.
Asylum applicants must be given an opportunity to present their cases, and that includes access to legal counsel in order to navigate difficult and complex U.S. immigration court procedures. Even if their asylum claims fail, families and children fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras should be granted temporary protected status, which would allow them to stay provisionally in the United States. The government previously granted temporary protected status to some nationals of El Salvador and Honduras because of natural disasters. Vulnerable refugee children must also be allowed to apply for it.