Washington — The Biden administration on Monday announced a series of actions aimed at preventing the labor exploitation of migrant children released from U.S. custody, citing an increase in workplace violations involving such minors in recent years.
The measures unveiled by the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services (HHS) include improving the vetting of adults who sponsor migrant children out of government custody and increased efforts to investigate and prosecute cases of child exploitation in worksites across the U.S.
The Department of Labor, which investigates illegal child labor cases, said it had recorded a 70% increase in the number of childrenover the past five years. In the government's 2022 fiscal year, the department found that 3,800 children had been employed by more than 800 companies in violation of child labor laws. Officials are currently overseeing over 600 probes into potential child labor exploitation.
The increase in unlawful child labor cases has come as the number of migrant minors entering U.S. border custody without their parents has reached federal statistics show.. In fiscal year 2022, 130,000 unaccompanied children were processed by U.S. officials along the southern border, an all-time high,
Under a 2008 law designed to prevent child trafficking, U.S. border officials are required to quickly transfer unaccompanied children who are not from Mexico to the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates a network of shelters to house them. Federal law bars the quick deportation of these minors.
HHS is mandated by law to house unaccompanied children until it can place them with sponsors, who are typically family members in the U.S. These children face deportation proceedings unless they apply for and receive permanent legal status, such as asylum or special visas for abused, neglected or abandoned youth.
While the reasons vary, many migrant children travel to the U.S. to reunite with family and escape poverty and violence. Smugglers have also communicated to would-be migrants that unaccompanied children are generally allowed to stay in the U.S. In interviews with CBS News, migrant teenagers from destitute parts of Central America have said they saw journeying to the U.S. as the only way to lift their families out of poverty.
After being released from federal custody, migrant children, most of whom are teenagers, often end up working grueling and dangerous jobs in factories, meat plants and construction sites that violate federal child labor laws, which severely restrict the type of physical work minors can do.
Recent investigations by The New York Times and Reuters have found migrant children as young as 12 working in chicken plants and slaughterhouses, making car parts, packaging well-known snacks, operating hazardous machinery and constructing roofs, all in violation of child labor laws.
During a briefing with reporters Monday, a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity to describe the new measures to crack down on illegal child labor, said the government is "seeing more and more children working in hazardous occupations across the country — and those are in dangerous workplaces."
The Biden administration announced it was creating an interagency task force led by the Department of Labor to crack down on illegal child labor, including by informing HHS that prospective sponsors need to be subjected to additional vetting due to potential child labor exploitation cases where they live.
The Department of Labor said it would launch child labor investigations in areas where statistics indicate that minors could be exploited. It also vowed to go after large companies benefiting from illegal child labor, not just suppliers and staffing agencies.
To deal a more significant blow to labor exploitation of minors, the administration said Congress would need to step in by allocating additional funding for Department of Labor investigations and increasing penalties for violators. Officials said the current maximum penalty for violating child labor laws — $15,138 — is "not high enough to be a deterrent for major profitable companies."
"This is not a 19th century problem — this is a today problem," outgoing Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said in a statement. "We need Congress to come to the table, we need states to come to the table. This is a problem that will take all of us to stop."
HHS, for its part, said it would require officials to follow up with migrant children who call a hotline to report safety concerns, and committed to expanding services to unaccompanied minors released from the department's custody. Those services are designed to ensure the children's well-being, and help them access legal counsel, education and medical assistance.
The department said it would also craft new guidance to inform migrant children and their sponsors that federal law prohibits employers from hiring minors to do dangerous jobs. Moreover, it announced a four-week audit of its sponsor vetting process, which has been under scrutiny in recent years.
After a spike in border arrivals of migrant children in early 2021 led to severe overcrowding in facilities that were not designed to house them, the Biden administration set up makeshift shelters across the country and worked to expedite the release of unaccompanied minors from U.S. custody.
As part of those efforts to fast-track the release of children, officialsseveral steps in the sponsor vetting process for certain cases. HHS has maintained it balanced those efforts with the need to ensure children were not released to sponsors who could harm or exploit them.
Another senior U.S. official who spoke at the briefing on Monday said the audit of the sponsor screenings would be conducted "without unnecessarily keeping kids in government funded congregate care settings."
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