On 17 June 2018, right-wing blogs published a flurry of stories reporting that the administration of former United States President Barack Obama had handed immigrant children over to human traffickers.
The reports were posted in response to the public outcry over a policy enacted by Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, whose administration in April 2018 announced a “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Under this policy, all adults who are caught crossing the southern U.S. border between ports of entry are being charged with federal crimes and then separated from accompanying children.
As the policy went into effect, news reports documenting scenes of distraught, traumatized children being torn from their parents by immigration authorities, and images migrant children being held in cages, created a backlash from both sides of the political spectrum against the Trump administration.
In response to the growing fallout, the president’s supporters wrote up stories criticizing his predecessor based on a 2015 criminal case and 2016 Senate report stemming from a Marion, Ohio human trafficking ring that used migrant children for forced labor on an egg farm. Right-leaning blogs like WesternJournal.com’s Conservative Tribune for example confusingly reported the media was “silent” about the case while aggregating their story from a New York Magazine report:
The left-leaning media stayed strangely silent when the detention of migrant children went on for years before Trump took office… and now it looks like they also kept quiet when Barack Obama’s administration literally placed immigrant children in the hands of human traffickers just a few years ago.
“The United States government placed an unknown number of Central American migrant children into the custody of human traffickers after neglecting to run the most basic checks on these so-called ‘caregivers,’” New York magazine reported in 2016, based on a Senate report.
It’s an obviously false statement that the “left-leaning media stayed strangely silent” about the case, because a simple Google search reveals it has been thoroughly reported on by local and national outlets and is the subject of a PBS documentary film. As the text notes, Conservative Tribune’s own story was based on such reporting.
In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted a ring of traffickers led by Aroldo Castillo-Serrano and accused them of smuggling children into the United States. They were also accused of lying to Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by posing as relatives in order to gain custody of children in its care and use them for forced labor in Marion, a city north of Columbus. The federal indictment, filed in U.S. district court in Ohio accuses Castillo-Serrano and his conspirators of forcing the children to live in squalid trailers and work six or seven 12-hour days a week, using threats and physical violence as coercion.
According to the Justice Department, Castillo-Serrano pleaded guilty in August 2015 to counts related to trafficking. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the victims.
The case spurred a Senate subcommittee investigation led by Rob Portman (R-Ohio) which concluded the processes used by ORR to screen sponsors “are inadequate to protect the children in the agency’s care.” At the time, HHS lacked a system to screen potential sponsors for signs of trafficking, like accumulating multiple unrelated children. It did not physically assess homes children were being placed in and did not do adequate background checks on adults residing in those homes. The report found that in 2014, “HHS permitted a sponsor to block a child-welfare case worker from visiting with one of the victims, even after the case worker discovered the child was not living at the address on file with HHS.”
As a result of the investigation, HHS and the Department of Homeland Security entered into an agreement to hammer out a joint plan that would address the issues raised in the report. As of 26 April 2018, that still had not happened according to Portman, who released a statement blasting the agencies for their failure to take action. He wrote:
The agreement said the agencies would enter into a detailed “Joint Concept of Operations” that would spell out what the agencies would do to fix the problems. They gave themselves a deadline of February 2017. That was over a year ago.
It’s now April 2018. We still don’t have that Joint Concept of Operations — the JCO — and despite repeated questions from Sen. Carper and me, as well as our staffs, over the past year, we don’t have any answers about why that is.
In fact, in a recent meeting, a DHS official asked our investigators why we even cared about the JCO.
The issue of HHS’s lack of accountability for unaccompanied immigrant children came to a head in May 2018 when HHS acting assistant secretary of Administration for Children and Families Steven Wagner told a Senate oversight committee that the agency could not account for 1,475 children it had placed with sponsors from October to December 2017. The furor over that story accompanied outrage over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, with critics raising concerns that the federal government was unnecessarily overwhelming an already-overburdened system with traumatized children.
To make matters worse, an investigation published 19 June 2018 by McClatchy revealed that the figure was only a snapshot from a three-month period and the number of children who are unaccounted for by HHS is actually nearly 6,000. The figure is likely exacerbated by an April 2018 agreement that allows background check information, including immigration status, of caregivers like parents and relatives to be shared with immigration authorities. McClatchy reported:
The new estimate comes as backlash widens over President Donald Trump’s’ decision to separate parents and children. Advocates argue the growing numbers of unaccounted children should be expected as families and sponsors become more fearful of federal officials that is now using information from government social workers to run immigration checks and, in some cases, target sponsors, including parents and family members, for removal.
We have reached out to HHS with a number of questions regarding the care of newly-separated children and the method with which they will be tracked and eventually reunited with parents. We have not received a response.