An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child and placed it by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.”
– Luke 9:46-48
Recently the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE debuted an episode entitled “Trafficked in America” that was compiled with the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley. The episode told the inside story of Guatemalan minors who crossed the U.S. border unaccompanied by their legal guardians. The teens were relegated to living in squalor and forced to work against their will at an Ohio egg farm. All of this came as a result of an elaborate shadow industry of smugglers involved in human trafficking, corporate sponsors of child labor, and elaborate manipulation of the foster care system for unaccompanied minors without proper documentation. The children’s families were promised $600 for their illegal labor and $550 of that $600 went to the trafficking operation. The shanty towns and abhorrent working conditions were not only subhuman, but questionable even from the standards of animal cruelty. All of this and potentially worse occurring in America’s heartland.
As a religious organization largely comprised of Christian clergy and lay people, we were quite distressed to hear of these revelations. As the Gospel passage cited above tells us, we believe there is a Christian imperative to receive children regardless of their background and to make the well-being of those children a priority in our affairs. The greatest care must be exercised when dealing with an especially vulnerable population like poor, unaccompanied minors who are often without appropriate legal paperwork, familiarity with U.S. laws and customs, or even the ability to communicate in the English language. When we see evidence of children forced to endure subhuman conditions in a country of abundant resources, we feel it is our calling to speak out and speak loudly.
Steven Wagner, the acting assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, indicated that between October and December of 2017, the Administration was unable to locate almost 1,500 of the 7,635 minors that were under its charge. These and other details were reported during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. The 2016 Report was entitled “Protecting Unaccompanied Alien Children from Trafficking and Other Abuses: The Role of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. We have become increasingly concerned that the focus of the current administration has shifted away from protecting such a vulnerable population and prosecuting members of the shadow industry that profit from such crimes.
It was reported as recently as May 31st, 2018 that the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, a major lifeline providing legal services specifically for this vulnerable population, has suspended funding for this legal representation. This comes amid a surge of immigration prosecution from the Justice Department, and a new policy targeting families suspected of illegal migration and separating children in these families from their parents. Additional disclosures from the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration indicated on Wednesday, May 23rd that 658 children were separated from their families for the sake of criminal prosecution. No member of Congress has been allowed to investigate the results of this policy. When Sen. Merkley, also of Ohio, sought to investigate the impact of the policy on hundreds of immigrant children detained at the Southwest Key Program building in Brownsville, TX, he was asked to leave the premises. On a separate visit to detentions centers in McCallum, TX, Sen. Merkley described the immigrants as being held in “cages that looked like kennels.” By all outward signs, this policy is not only lacking in oversight but exudes indifferent disposition toward the fate of such a vulnerable population of children. In short, we struggle to identify positive intentions that could justify such a policy.
To respond to our concerns, we would like the HHS to immediately reinstate the systematic background checks and fingerprinting of foster caregivers in order not to handicap law enforcement agencies who are charged with tracking down smugglers and traffickers on both sides of international borders. Additionally, we believe it is incumbent upon the administration to combat child labor profiteering by initiating a more robust and transparent Labor department investigation into companies suspected of profiting from child labor. Once identified, the penalties against companies participating in this shadow industry ought to be strong enough to not only deter participation in these unlawful practices but also prompt these companies to initiate internal investigations of their own. If the status quo suggests that it is more profitable for companies to turn a blind eye because the possibility of harmful penalty is so remote, the status quo must change for the sake of child welfare. Many of these recommendations are already reflected in the 2016 Report from the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and we would like to see progress rather than recalcitrance in this regard.