Government aids in human trafficking

By Frank Lewis -

The federal government placed migrant children with a human trafficking ring in Ohio. If that was nothing more than a social media rumor you might just blow it off. However, on Thursday, Jan. 28, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — chaired by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) — will unveil the results of its six-month investigation into shocking revelations that the federal government did place migrant children with a human trafficking ring in Ohio.

The Subcommittee has been conducting a bipartisan investigation concerning not only the Ohio cases, but HHS’s broader process for vetting sponsors of migrant children and how well HHS protects them from human trafficking risks.

Portman, who chairs the Senate’s bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said he will hold a hearing on the agency’s child-placement program Thursday because he is concerned that the failures are systemic.

“We think reforms are necessary and urgently required, because there are kids right now who are coming in over the border,” Portman said. “This is a problem that has to be addressed.”

An Associated Press investigation has determined that tens of thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America crossed the border in search of safe harbor, overwhelmed U.S. officials weakened child-protection policies, placing some young migrants in homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved, or forced to work for little or no pay.

The report said without enough beds to house the record numbers of young arrivals, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lowered its safety standards during border surges in the last three years to swiftly move children out of government shelters and into sponsors’ homes.

The procedures were increasingly relaxed as the number of young migrants rose in response to spiraling gang and drug violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to emails, agency memos and operations manuals obtained by the AP, some under the Freedom of Information Act.

First, the government stopped fingerprinting most adults seeking to claim the children. In April 2014, the agency stopped requiring original copies of birth certificates to prove most sponsors’ identities.

The next month, it decided not to complete forms that request sponsors’ personal and identifying information before sending many of the children to their homes. Then, it eliminated FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors.

Since the rule changes, the AP has identified more than two dozen children who were placed with sponsors who subjected them to sexual abuse, labor trafficking or severe abuse and neglect.

One of the cases reviewed by the AP involved a then-14-year-old from Guatemala who arrived in the U.S. in September 2014 and was sent to a sponsor’s apartment in Los Angeles, where he was held for three weeks. In an interview, Marvin Velasco said his sponsor, a distant relative whom he had never met, deprived him of food.

“He told authorities that he was going to take me to school and help me with food and clothing, but it wasn’t like that at all,” Velasco, who since has been granted special legal status for young immigrants, said. “The whole time, I was just praying and thinking about my family.”

Other accounts uncovered by the AP include a 14-year-old Honduran girl whose stepfather forced her to work at cantinas in central Florida where women drink and sometimes have sex with patrons; a 17-year-old from Honduras sent to live with an aunt in Texas, who forced her to work in a restaurant at night and clean houses on weekends, and often locker her in the home; a 17-year-old guatemalan placed in the home of a friend’s brother in Alabama, where he was made towork in a restaurant for 12 hours a day to earn rent and a Central American teen placed with a family friend who forced her to cook, clean and care for younger children in a Florida trailer park.

By Frank Lewis

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.