“Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.”

E&C is Holding Sec. Becerra Accountable for the Unaccompanied Child Crisis

President Biden’s open-border policies are causing a surge of unaccompanied children making the dangerous journey across the border. Tragically, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), under the leadership of Secretary Xavier Becerra, has failed to keep children safe in their care. Secretary Becerra’s ORR has lost track of tens of thousands of children after hastily releasing them from custody.

As reported by the New York Times, “migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country.” Below are key takeaways and excerpts from the Times’ February 2023 investigative reporting.

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As reported by the New York Times:

“The number of unaccompanied minors entering the United States climbed to a high of 130,000 last year — three times what it was five years earlier — and this summer is expected to bring another wave.

“These are not children who have stolen into the country undetected. The federal government knows they are in the United States, and the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them and protect them from trafficking or exploitation.

“But as more and more children have arrived, the Biden White House has ramped up demands on staffers to move the children quickly out of shelters and release them to adults. Caseworkers say they rush through vetting sponsors.

“While H.H.S. checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by The Times showed that over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.”


Children being processed by the U.S. Border Patrol in Roma, Texas. In the past two years alone, 250,000 unaccompanied minors have come into the country.

Photo: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times


“Concerns piled up in summer 2021 at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the H.H.S. division responsible for unaccompanied migrant children. In a memo that July, 11 managers said they were worried that labor trafficking was increasing and complained to their bosses that the office had become ‘one that rewards individuals for making quick releases, and not one that rewards individuals for preventing unsafe releases.’

“Staff members said in interviews that Mr. Becerra continued to push for faster results, often asking why they could not discharge children with machine-like efficiency.

“‘If Henry Ford had seen this in his plants, he would have never become famous and rich. This is not the way you do an assembly line,’ Mr. Becerra said at a staff meeting last summer, according to a recording obtained by The Times.”


“During a call last March [March 2022], Mr. Becerra told Cindy Huang, the O.R.R. director, that if she could not increase the number of discharges, he would find someone who could, according to five people familiar with the call. She resigned a month later.” 


  1. Children are working low-paying, hard-labor jobs instead of attending school.

“Kevin Tomas said he sought work through Forge after he arrived in Grand Rapids at age 13 with his 7-year-old brother. At first, he was sent to a local manufacturer that made auto parts for Ford and General Motors. But his shift ended at 6:30 in the morning, so he could not stay awake in school, and he struggled to lift the heavy boxes.”


“‘I didn’t get how expensive everything was,’ said 13-year-old Jose Vasquez, who works 12-hour shifts, six days a week, at a commercial egg farm in Michigan and lives with his teenage sister. ‘I’d like to go to school, but then how would I pay rent?’”

  1. Children are being seriously injured—or killed—by occupational hazards.

“Paco Calvo arrived in Middlebury, Vt., when he was 14 and has been working 12-hour days on dairy farms in the four years since. He said he crushed his hand in an industrial milking machine in the first months of doing this work. ‘Pretty much everyone gets hurt when they first start,’ he said.”

  1. Children are being exploited by sponsors for profit.

“While many migrant children are sent to the United States by their parents, others are persuaded to come by adults who plan to profit from their labor.

“Nery Cutzal was 13 when he met his sponsor over Facebook Messenger. Once Nery arrived in Florida, he discovered that he owed more than $4,000 and had to find his own place to live. His sponsor sent him threatening text messages and kept a running list of new debts: $140 for filling out H.H.S. paperwork; $240 for clothes from Walmart; $45 for a taco dinner.”


A handwritten ledger, in Spanish, of Nery Cutzal’s debts to his sponsor, 

including money for tacos and clothes. Photo: New York Times.

“’Don’t mess with me,’ the sponsor wrote. ‘You don’t mean anything to me.’

“Nery began working until 3 a.m. most nights at a trendy Mexican restaurant near Palm Beach to make the payments. ‘He said I would be able to go to school and he would take care of me, but it was all lies,’ Nery said.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee is holding Secretary Becerra accountable for his failure to keep children in ORR’s care safe and prevent their exploitation after release. Tune in to our Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on July 26th at 10:00 AM.

CLICK HERE to read the full New York Times reporting.