Linda Brandmiller worked in the spring of 2021 at an arena that was converted to an emergency shelter for migrants' children. As the Biden administration struggled to deal with the record number of minors who crossed into the United States, without their parents, thousands of boys slept on cots.
She was trained to spot possible human trafficking. Two cases stood out in her first week: A man said he sponsored three boys so he could employ them at his company. One man, who was from Florida, wanted to sponsor two kids who would be required to pay for the costs of their transportation north.
She immediately contacted supervisors at the Department of Health and Human Services (the federal agency in charge of these children). She wrote, "This is urgent," in an email that was reviewed by The New York Times.
She noticed within a few days that the child was about to be given to the man from Florida. She sent another email asking for "immediate" attention from a supervisor and mentioning that a 14-year old boy had been sent to the same sponsor by the government.
Ms. Brandmiller emailed also the manager of the shelter. Few days later, during her lunch hour, she was denied access to the building. She claimed that she never received an explanation as to why she had lost her job.
In the last two years alone, over 250,000 migrant kids have arrived in the United States. A recent Times investigation revealed that thousands of children were forced to work in harsh jobs in the United States. They worked overnight in slaughterhouses or factories, replaced roofs and operated machinery. All of these jobs violated child labor laws. The White House implemented policy changes after the publication of the article in February.
The Times found that there were warnings and signs about the explosive growth in this labor force, but the Biden administration either ignored them or did not pay attention to them.
Veteran government employees and contractors repeatedly told the Health and Human Services Department - including in reports sent to Secretary Xavier Becerra - that children were at risk. The Labor Department issued news releases highlighting the increase in child labour. Senior White House staff were shown evidence of child exploitation. For example, clusters of migrants found using industrial equipment or caustic chemical.
Children were released to sponsors with little help as the administration was scrambling to empty shelters which were overcrowded. Sponsors expected children to do dangerous and grueling jobs.
In interviews with The Times officials expressed concern about migrant kids but blamed others for not protecting them.
Officials said that the Department of Health and Human Services had done a thorough job in vetting sponsors, but it could not control how children were treated after their release. They said that the Department of Labor was responsible for monitoring workplaces.
The Labor Department officials said that inspectors have increased their focus on the issue of child labor. They also shared information about workers to H.H.S. but stressed that it is not a welfare organization.
White House officials stated that although the two departments passed on information regarding migrant child labour, the reports did not indicate an urgent situation and did not explain the extent of the problem. Robyn M. Patterson said that in a White House statement, the administration is now increasing its scrutiny of employers, and reviewing their vetting process of sponsors.
The statement stated that "It is unacceptable that companies use child labor and the administration will continue to work to strengthen the system for investigating these violations and holding violators responsible."
The White House refused to explain why it did not react earlier to the repeated indications that migrants were being exploited.
Brandmiller, an immigration attorney, said, "If they had seen it, they would have been able to put it together." There were many chances to connect the dots, but no one did. A spokeswoman for the H.H.S. said that it had no records of Ms. Brandmiller expressing her concerns. The company that operated the emergency shelter refused to comment.
Ms. Brandmiller still worries about Antonio Diaz Mendez, a 14-year-old.
Antonio lives in Florida City, Florida, far away from his family back in Guatemala. In an interview conducted last summer, Antonio sat in the mildewed porches of houses crowded with migrant kids. He told me he worked long shifts at a warehouse that packed vegetables to be distributed around the country. I hadn't seen my sponsor for months.
He often went for days without speaking to anyone. He wanted to attend school but felt trapped by the need to earn money in order to pay his debts, provide for himself, and help his brothers.
He said that no one had ever checked on him.
The growing number of migrants children sparked tensions between the new administration, and the long-time government employees.
The president promised to follow a 2008 law against trafficking that required the federal government accept children who travel alone from the majority of countries, and allowed them to remain in the United States while they applied for legal status.
The law didn't anticipate a pandemic that would decimate the economies of Central American nations. In order to make money, parents in deepening economic poverty sent their children to work in the United States. This is part of what some immigration activists call "voluntary separation of families."
Five people who worked with Susan E. Rice in 2021 recall that she expressed frustration with the situation when images of children under foil blankets sleeping in overflow centres dominated the media. Ms. Rice scribbled a note on a memo detailing advocates' position, who believed that a border closure during the pandemic era was forcing parents to send unaccompanied minors, also known as U.C.s.
According to a copy reviewed by The Times, Ms. Rice wrote: "This is BS." What is causing 'voluntary separation' is our generosity towards UCs!
In a press release, Ms. Patterson (White House spokesperson) said any suggestion that Rice felt restricted by the requirements of the law is false. She added that Rice was "proud" to do the right thing, and treat children with dignity.
According to the law, it is the Department of Health and Human Services' responsibility to vet sponsors in order for them ensure the well-being of children and prevent trafficking and exploitation. As shelters filled up with children, the Department of Health and Human Services began to loosen some vetting requirements and encouraged case managers speed up the process.
H.H.S. Staff members of the H.H.S. complained about the changes. White House officials and aides grew frustrated, believing these workers were holding on to outdated protocols that kept kids in shelters even though it would be better to have them in a family with an adult.
Vivian Graubard was a White House advisor who worked with Ms. Rice to address issues relating to migrant children.
Five Health and Human Services employees have filed complaints and claimed they were fired after raising concerns over child safety.
Jallyn Sualog, the senior member of H.H.S. When Mr. Biden became president, the division that was responsible for unaccompanied migrants children had been created. She helped to build the program following the 2008 law's passage and, as a long-time Democrat, she had celebrated Mr. Biden’s victory.
She said that she soon began hearing reports of children being released to adult who lied about their identity or planned to exploit them.
In a 2021 email she warned her bosses that "if nothing is done, there will a catastrophic incident." She then continued to email about the situations which she described as being "critical" and putting "children at risk."
Sualog, worried that no one would listen to her, filed a complaint with the H.H.S. in the fall 2021. The agency's internal watchdog Office of Inspector General requested whistleblower protection. She took the unusual step to speak with congressional staffers and express her concerns.
Ms. Sualog, speaking of the administration, said: "I felt that I did all I could to warn the administration without protesting on the streets." They just didn't care to hear about it.
She was fired from her job in late 2021. She complained to the federal office that enforces whistleblower protection laws, saying she was illegally retaliated.
The Office of the Inspector General published a report last fall that addressed Ms. Sualog’s case, as well as several demotions or dismissals that occurred at the agency and "may have reached the level of whistleblower intimidation."
Ms. Sualog reached a settlement with the agency and they agreed to cover her legal costs. She resigned from that position last month.
A H.H.S. A H.H.S. The spokeswoman stated that while some staffers disagreed the approach of the administration, it was necessary to make significant changes in order to deal with the increasing number of unaccompanied migrants children.
While some veteran employees were leaving, others continued to raise alarms. In January, just before the Times' investigation was published, another group of employees sent a memo to their H.H.S. The bosses were told that the system was causing unsafe discharges. They wrote: "We are removing humanity from 'Health and Human Services'."
Matt Haygood sent an email to H.H.S. officials in the spring of last year with the subject "Trafficking Concerns". officials.
He wrote: "We have identified troubling trends" in the Chicago area, such as vans picking children up at odd times, which suggested that they were driven to factory work. Mr. Haygood wanted to know if H.H.S. Mr. Haygood asked if H.H.S.
A member of the H.H.S. A member of the H.H.S.
The staff member stated that there were "certainly plenty of other red flags" concerning human trafficking. H.H.S.
A H.H.S. A spokeswoman for the department said that the department already had protections in place to protect children released on a few streets of the city, and at the time considered expanding these measures as an overreach.
In a Little Village fast-food place, Guatemalan teens played video games and flirted with each other in Indigenous languages. Many said that they worked overnight at factories in violation of the child labor laws. Few of them had attended school.
Marvin Che said that he had come to the United States in the past year when he was 16 years old. He worked 12-hour shifts overnight with other migrant kids, packing products for the manufacturer Pactiv Evergreen. This included Hefty party cups made of plastic. Marvin Che said, "We came by ourselves so we had to work hard."
Pactiv Evergreen spokeswoman said the company's policy prohibits minors from working on manufacturing sites and it will ensure that staffing agencies comply. Reynolds Consumer Products' representative, who owns Hefty, confirmed that Pactiv Evergreen does not make its party cups.
Other social services organizations have also flagged clusters suspicious cases including in Nashville and Dallas.
"We are waiting for the hearing in Congress that asks, 'How could this have happened to these children?'" said Mr. Haygood.
Two oversight hearings will be held in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. Both parties in Congress have been questioning why so many children end up in exploitative work.
A H.H.S. A H.H.S. She said that the department was working on providing a few months' worth of case management for all unaccompanied children.
The Times obtained internal documents that show the number of reports received by this hotline about trafficking has increased by 1,300% in the last five years.
One child in Charlotte, N.C. said that his sponsor found him a job at a restaurant, telling him, "He needs to work in order to eat". Another child claimed that his sponsor never enrolled him into school after he left an El Paso homeless shelter and forced him to pay rent and food.
H.H.S. The H.H.S.
Antonio, who had just turned 14, spent several weeks in a shelter at the border before moving to Florida. Antonio's former neighbor agreed to sponsor him, but he had no idea how isolated he would feel in the United States.
He worked for employers who would hire a child with no work permit. Sometimes he did housecleaning, sometimes he did landscaping. He enrolled in the eighth grade, where he discovered that he enjoyed biology.
He barely made it to the end of the year. But he wanted more money. He decided to pack vegetables instead of going on to the ninth grade. Even though he wore the thickest jacket he could buy, he was still chilled every night from working numbing hours. Jalaram Produce spokeswoman said that the company does not employ minors.
Antonio hadn't told anyone at home about his struggles. "I don’t want them worrying about me," said Antonio. He knew that his father was less present during the pandemic and his grandmother could not feed his sisters. He told her he would feel less alone when he turns 16 and is able to enroll in evening school.
It was a hope shared by many migrant kids in his neighbourhood. Few blocks away, another boy who worked in construction admitted that he was ashamed of not being able to read. In 2021, he was also released -- at the age of 12 -- by a man that had sponsored at least 5 children. He was immediately put to use. A 13-year old released to a man whom he'd never met last year at a day labor pickup site said that he would like to enroll in middle-school and learn English.
Antonio explained, "people don't realize that there are many kids living in the same situation."
Rice was the face of the crisis involving migrant kids in the White House. She pushed to get the children out of shelters faster, and clues started to appear about what happened to them after they left.
H.H.S. managers wrote a memo in the summer of 2021 near the peak of the rush at the border. Managers wrote a note expressing their concern about the increasing number of reports that children are working with their sponsors as a possible sign of labor trafficking. Two people who were familiar with the conversation say that Ms. Rice and her team received the memo.
Andrew J. Bates is the White House's deputy press secretary. He disputed this, saying that Ms. Rice had "not seen the memo" and wasn't made aware of its content.
Six current and former employees said that Ms. Rice was informed about the concerns regarding a large number of children released in a city in Alabama at around the same time. H.H.S. provided frequent updates on the situation. Case managers were sent to the city to monitor the children and to coordinate with Homeland Security Investigations and the Labor Department to determine if they worked in poultry plants.
Former top White House advisors recall thinking that this development was alarming and suggested that other cases might be overlooked.
A White House spokesperson denied senior officials had been informed about the situation.
Few months later, the staff of Ms. Rice learned that H.H.S. According to a former White House official, a growing number migrant kids were not able to reach their families just one month after they were released.
The White House treated these events as isolated incidents, and not as a sign of a growing problem.
Tyler Moran, at the time Mr. Biden’s senior advisor for migration, stated that she relied heavily on H.H.S. She relied on H.H.S. to help her weigh the information she received, including the memo sent by the department's concerned managers and the unanswered calls from children. She said that staff members had not indicated a larger child labor crisis. "The White House left it up to the agencies to tell us when there was a real problem," said Ms. Moran.
The Department of Labor sent its own signals. Investigators discovered signs of child labor in industrial workplaces including auto parts factories in the South, starting 2022. The Department issued news releases warning that child labor violations were on the rise.
Labor investigators launched a major investigation at a sanitation firm last summer. They found that over 100 children, mostly Spanish-speaking, were cleaning meatpacking factories around the country during the overnight shift. The majority of these children were released by the migrant shelters and had been adopted by sponsors.
H.H.S. informed Ms. Rice's team about the situation regularly over a period of months, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Two people who were familiar with these conversations say that Ms. Rice and her team were regularly updated on the situation over the course of several months.
In weekly cabinet reports, the Labor Department included information about the auto parts and sanitation companies. Martin J. Walsh was the labor secretary until last month. "We sent reports, so that they knew we were working to fix this stuff."
The Labor Department's public dashboard was updated in December and showed an increase of 69 percent in child labor violations from 2018.
A spokesperson for the Labor Department stated that the White House was aware of the increase in child labor as it had been widely publicized. Bates, White House deputy Press secretary, however, claimed that officials at the White House were unaware of the rise in child labor before The Times' February report.
Even after Ms. Brandmiller’s warnings the man who sponsored Antonio, Juan Rivera was allowed to accept another boy. He claimed he had sponsored a 15 year old and provided him with a job at a palm plantation.
In an interview, Mr. Rivera stated that he did Antonio a favor in helping him to come to the United States. He kept a record of all his expenses. This included the cost to pick up Antonio when he left his shelter, the food and clothing he bought upon his arrival, and the twin-size bed for his room. Antonio had to pay back the debt for about a year.
He said that he saw Antonio occasionally in the area, and assumed he worked hard and sent money home. He said that American kids only study while our children are poor and must work. "One must suffer in order to make a little bit of money here."
Antonio's landlord decided that the house was overcrowded this spring. Antonio moved to a new house, but rent was double as much. He switched jobs, taking on better-paying shifts in day labor, and no longer wanted to go to night school. He is saving money to hire an attorney who can help him get a work permit for a job that's less demanding.
Antonio said, "I have to make a lot of money right now." "It has gotten tough, but I am at least helping."
He attends a Spanish language church on Sundays with a lively youth group. Antonio often sits after services with the pastor, Abel Gomez. He cries out about the pressure that he feels.
Mr. Gomez stated, "What I most want for Antonio is that he be able go back to the school." "But I understand that it is difficult for him, because he has no one who can support him."
Mr. Gomez stated that he would love to be able to help more young members of the congregation like Antonio -- and even accept them. It would be impossible. It is impossible.
Ana Ley contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.