U.S. officials placed young immigrants with sex traffickers and human smugglers, senators say

Salvadorian immigrant Stefany Marjorie, 8, watches as a U.S. Border Patrol agent records family information.

Salvadorian immigrant Stefany Marjorie, 8, watches as a U.S. Border Patrol agent records family information.  (2014 Getty Images)

Two senators called out federal authorities on Tuesday for allegedly placing young immigrants with convicted criminals – including sex traffickers and human smugglers – and then refusing to remove them despite being alerted to the situation by whistle blowers.

A unnamed source told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that at least 3,400 sponsors – about 12 percent of 29,000 listed in a government database – had criminal convictions for crimes ranging from domestic violence and homicide to child molestation, sexual assault and human trafficking.

"Although the whistle-blower claims to have relayed these concerns to supervisors in August of 2015," the senators wrote in a letter to the secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, whose departments are responsible for processing the youths, according to the Los Angeles Times, "apparently these individuals have no immediate plans to remove [unaccompanied minors] from their criminal sponsors, but are 'discussing options.'"

In a statement, officials from Health and Human Service's Office of Refugee Resettlement said, "It is not the practice of the Office of Refugee Resettlement to place unaccompanied children with sponsors who have serious criminal convictions… The safety of the children is our primary concern and any allegation of even potential harm is taken seriously and will be investigated.”

While the resettlement program has long drawn controversy, the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America last year – around 68,600 of them – led to a worsening of the situation.

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In their letter, Grassley and Cornyn said that federal regulations prohibit the youths "from being released to a sponsor if there is substantial evidence that the child would be at risk of harm. Yet, due to a breakdown with screening and background checks of sponsors, many of the most vulnerable are being victimized.”

The note added that while background checks were supposed to be run on prospective sponsors "often these background checks are not thoroughly performed and sponsors are not properly vetted or even fingerprinted … and children are paying the price.”

In August reports emerged that federal authorities had placed a half a dozen teenage Guatemalan boys in the care of human traffickers in Ohio. The boys were forced to live trailers and work 12 hours a day at an egg farm, while having their paychecks confiscated and threatened with death if they sought help.

"Based on what I've learned to date, I am concerned that the child placement process failure that contributed to the Ohio trafficking case is part of a systemic problem rather than a one-off incident," Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said. "We continue to demand answers from the administration with the goal of uncovering how this abuse occurred and reforming the system to protect all minors against human trafficking."

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