Politics

Rep. Fred Keller: Biden’s border policies expose unaccompanied minors to human trafficking

President Biden’s border policies put illegal immigrant children at risk of falling victim to “human traffickers” in the U.S., warned Rep. Fred Keller, who is introducing legislation Thursday to tackle the threat.

Mr. Keller said the Biden administration doesn’t do a good enough job checking out sponsors who come to claim the Unaccompanied Alien Children, or UACs, from government custody, and some of them are putting the kids into abusive situations.

His bill would require stiffer vetting, would only release children to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, and would require those who come to collect the children to post a bond to ensure the children show up for their immigration proceedings.

“The federal government under the Biden administration is placing [unaccompanied minors] with people that aren’t even in the country legally and haven’t even been vetted,” the Pennsylvania Republican said in an interview. “We’re taking a child, and we’re placing them in a situation where we don’t know the background of the people that are going to be tasked with caring for that child.”

His legislation comes amid a record-shattering surge of UACs.

Some 160,000 have rushed across the border since Mr. Biden took office, overwhelming the Border Patrol, which first encounters them, and the Health and Human Services Department, which takes custody and holds them until sponsors come forward.

At one point, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement had more than 22,000 children in its custody, most of them stashed in makeshift camps that critics said were filthy, spread disease and left kids traumatized.

Seeking to rush kids out of those conditions, the Biden administration last year weakened the background check process for sponsors, making it easier for people to come and collect children.

Mr. Keller says the process is being exploited.

His bill, known as the Safe Sponsors Act, is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, Randy Weber of Texas and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina.

“We need to get to the bottom of it,” Mr. Keller said. “And if they’re not going to do their job, we’re gonna do everything we can to force them to do it.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. 

UACs started to surge after the Biden administration created an exception to the coronavirus pandemic border shutdown last year. While most illegal immigrants are subject to immediate expulsion under the policy, known as Title 42, UACs are exempt.

The number of UACs more than tripled from about 5,000 in December 2020, the last full month under President Trump, to more than 18,000 by March 2021, when the Biden policy was fully in place.

The rate has dropped somewhat, but more than 12,000 UACs were caught in February, and ORR reported having more than 10,000 in its custody as of Sunday.

Mr. Keller said the children are part of a larger border security breakdown.

“It starts with one enforcing our border so that we don’t have people on the terror watch list coming into our country and have this flood of people coming in illegally,” Mr. Keller said. “But once these children are here, we need to know what’s happening to them. And the information right from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are showing us that they have no control over it.”

The “vast majority” of the children in ORR custody are placed with “a parent or close family relative living in the U.S.,” according to HHS. 

Indeed, parents often send their children across the border with names and telephone numbers of relatives already in the U.S. written into their clothing, to give U.S. authorities a start on whom to contact.

Many of the sponsors are in the country illegally themselves, and there are documented cases of UACs being placed with sponsors who beat them or force them into child labor.

According to ORR, potential guardians undergo an evaluation process to ensure children are protected from “smugglers, traffickers, or others who might seek to victimize or otherwise engage the child in criminal, harmful or exploitative activity.”

The multistep vetting process, according to the ORR website, includes interviews, suitability assessments, background checks, and, in some cases, home studies. The ORR also says it verifies the guardian’s identity and relationship, if any, to the child being released and, in most cases, sponsors undergo a sex offender registry check. 

Still, Mr. Keller said key gaps in vetting by the federal government leave thousands of children at risk.

He points to Justice Department figures showing that nearly half of the UACs in the care of guardians fail to appear for their initial court hearings. He said that should be a red flag for policymakers.

“They are legally bound to make sure the child shows up to this. If they are not even doing that, I hate to think what else is happening to that child,” Mr. Keller said.

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