(CNSNews.com) – The Biden administration has announced a series of actions to address child labor law violations, especially the practice of hiring unaccompanied migrant children oftentimes to do dangerous jobs.
This comes on the heels of a New York Times article which said they spoke with more than 100 migrant children “in 20 states who described jobs that were grinding them into exhaustion, and fears that they had become trapped in circumstances they never could have imagined.”
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.
An H.H.S. spokeswoman said the agency wanted to release children swiftly, for the sake of their well-being, but had not compromised safety. “There are numerous places along the process to continually ensure that a placement is in the best interest of the child,” said the spokeswoman, Kamara Jones.
Far from home, many of these children are under intense pressure to earn money. They send cash back to their families while often being in debt to their sponsors for smuggling fees, rent and living expenses.
To address this, HHS announced Monday “new efforts to combat exploitative child labor,” which are as follows:
- a Department of Labor-led interagency task force to combat child labor exploitation,
- a national strategic enforcement initiative on child labor, holding all employers accountable,
- mandating follow-up calls for unaccompanied migrant children who report safety concerns,
- expanding post release services for unaccompanied children,
- increasing funding for Labor Department enforcement agencies,
- calling on Congress to increase civil monetary penalties for companies using child labor,
- auditing the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) sponsor vetting process,
- new training materials so that unaccompanied children know their rights.
“As you all may have seen, a couple of hours ago, the president — at the president’s direction, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services announced new actions to crack down on child labor violations and ensure that sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children are vigorously, rigorously vetted,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday.
“Child abuse — child labor is abuse, and it is unacceptable. Again, it is unacceptable.
This administration has long been combating a surge in child exploitation, and today, the Department of Labor and HHS announced that they will create a new interagency task force to combat child exploitation,” she said.
“They will also increase scrutiny of companies that do — that do business with employers who violate child labor laws; mandate follow-up calls for unaccompanied migrant children who report safety concerns to the HHS hotline; and audit the sponsor vetting process for unaccompanied migrant children over the next four weeks,” the press secretary said.
Today’s actions make clear that we will continue — we will continue to investigate and hold companies accountable. We will also — what we also need, which is incredibly important here — we need Congress to take action as well,” Jean-Pierre said.
“We need Congress to provide the resources this administration has long requested to better enforce child labor laws, and we need Congress to increase the maximum civil penalty for child labor violations to better deter these bad actors,” the press secretary said.
When asked whether President Biden is satisfied with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra’s handling of this issue given the push that he and others have made to more quickly release children to sponsors where they wind up in child labor situations, Jean-Pierre said, “So, let me first say: Yes, he has full confidence in the Secretary of HHS, and I’m assuming you’re — you’re talking about the “assembly line” comment or —
“So, look, you know, I just want to be very clear. Of course, the president does not believe that — that processing migrants should be treated like an assembly line, and neither does Secretary Becerra,” the press secretary said.
She said that “HHS addressed that particular comment in the story, and I would refer you to what he was — what was said there.
“Look, more broadly, though, the health and safety and the wellbeing of children is the priority of this — this president, this administration, and also Secretary Becerra. That means getting kids out of congregate settings and rigorously, as I just mentioned at the top, vetting — vetting families and sponsors that would take in these children,” Jean-Pierre said.
When asked whether the crackdown is a direct response to The New York Times article that was published over the weekend, the press secretary said, “So, I just want to be very clear here. Look, the New York Times story is heartbreaking, and it is completely unacceptable, and this is something that we have taken action on. So, just also want to be clear on that.
“The president and his administration has long focused on — on making sure that this growing problem of child exploitation is dealt with. Just a couple of things that I’ll lay out in what we have done — especially the Department of Labor has done — over the last the — last year or two is — because they have been focused on this,” she said.
“Just last fall, they secured a court order stopping an Alabama manufacturer of Hyundai and Kia parts from employing children. They recently also — they got one of the nation’s largest food safety sanitation providers to pay $1.5 million in civil penalties for violating child labor laws. So, that doesn’t mean that the work is done,” Jean-Pierre said.
“That’s why you heard the announcement today that you did from — from the two agencies on what we can do next from the Department of Labor and HHS on what other actions that we can take to move forward, but, again, you heard me say this at the top: We also need Congress to act,” she said.
“The president asked Congress, in his fiscal year ‘23 budget, for more fundings. It fell short by $50 million, and — and so what that — it was a request for the DOL Wage and Hour Division to be able to do its job, and because of that funding shortfall, it prevented the department from hiring nearly 200 additional staffers to combat these violations,” the press secretary said.
“So, again, we’ve been working on this. This administration has been working on this for the past two years, taking this incredibly seriously, and now we’re going to take additional actions to get to the bottom of this,” Jean-Pierre said.
As far as who should be held accountable for the lack of oversight in the first place, the press secretary said, “We’ve taken action to try and deal with a real issue — a really true issue that was exacerbated, let’s not forget, by the last administration, and so, that’s what we walked into.
“HHS took action on day one. Let’s — if we take a step back — when we came into office, migrant children were being expelled to Mexico where they were subjected to gang violence and exploitation. So, we’ve reversed that policy, making clear that we — we as a nation have a — more responsibility to do better. So, we took action there, and, look, we knew that decision would bring new challenges,” she said.
“We were dealing with a once-in-a-generation pandemic that required unprecedented safety measures for children in HHS care, and you heard us — you heard us, beginning of this administration, talk about how we were moving — trying to move — trying to improve the situation for unaccompanied minors when they were coming in and also how to move them in the most safe way possible,” Jean-Pierre said.
“So, is there more work to be done? Absolutely, but to say that we have not taken this seriously after I just laid out what the Department of Labor has done — over the past several months, in particular — I think, would — you know, would — would be inaccurate, and, of course, the president wants to get to the bottom of this. That’s why we put forth and announced a task force,” she said.
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