Immigrant Kids Came To The U.S. To Escape Danger. Instead, They Found Abuse.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay, File

Immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who entered the country illegally board a bus after they were released from a family detention center in San Antonio, Tuesday, July 7, 2015.

Over the past several years, in an attempt to flee gang violence and poverty in their home countries, tens of thousands of Central American children have crossed the border into the United States seeking a safer life. But some of them didn’t fare much better once they arrived in this country, according to an Associated Press investigation.

In fact, the AP investigation found that more than two dozen young and unaccompanied Central American border crossers were placed with U.S. sponsors who subjected them to horrendous conditions, including labor trafficking and abuse.

Government officials may be partly to blame. As agencies struggled to quickly find sponsors for the unprecedented number of unaccompanied children who showed up along the southern U.S. border over the past three years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lowered its safety standards.

The procedures in place to scrutinize adult sponsors were “increasingly relaxed” — allowing adults to claim children without providing fingerprints, no longer requiring original copies of birth certificates to prove sponsors’ identities, eliminating FBI criminal history checks for many sponsors, and deciding not to complete forms that would track sponsors’ personal and identifying information. Using emails, agency memos, and operation manuals obtained by the publication, the AP found that “more than two dozen children were subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, severe abuse, and neglect” after these lax procedures were put in place.

Before the sharp increase in the number of children, becoming a sponsor was a much more rigorous process. Caseworkers had to get sponsors to do background checks, give fingerprints, make 60-day home studies, and sign contracts guaranteeing that children would appear in immigration court.

Marvin Velasco, a 14-year-old Guatemalan teenager who came to the country in September 2014, was placed with a distant relative who starved him and made him pay rent. After he crossed the border into the United States, he was sent to a shelter run by HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). But the ORR stopped requiring social workers to complete background checks, take fingerprints from sponsors, and didn’t visit the sponsor’s one-bedroom apartment both before and after Velasco arrived. He escaped with the help of the sponsor’s son and has since been placed with another Guatemalan immigrant family.

“These tragic situations do happen when there are bad actors involved, and that makes it incredibly difficult for the government to ferret them out,” HHS spokesman Mark Weber told the AP. “I know we learn from lessons and keep trying to improve the system to ensure the child is placed in a safe place, and I’m confident the vast majority of the kids are.”

Other teenagers in similar situations are not as lucky as Velasco. The AP found instances of a Honduran teenager whose father forced her to work for several months at cantinas “where women drink, dance, and sometimes have sex with patrons,” another Honduran teenager who was often locked indoors, and teens who were forced to work or clean once placed with sponsors. Other experts said that some children were raped by relatives or other people affiliated with the sponsors. There are still kids whose whereabouts are unknown.

The ORR increased home visits and background checks after six unaccompanied minors were found working on egg farms across rural Ohio last July. The federal contractor Lutheran Immigrant Refugee Services found 201 cases where children ran away or the families couldn’t be found. One social worker visited an apartment complex in Florida only to find an empty apartment, instead of the dozen or so children who were sent to live there.

But Central American children are also potential victims throughout every step of their journey. Dozens of children have complained that Customs and Border Protection officers subjected them to verbal abuse, physical abuse, and threatened them with bodily harm. And at least three immigrant families were released to a shelter in 2014 that was kept in deplorable conditions like piles of bedding visibly covered in flies, fleas, and maggots.

It’s possible that conditions could improve as another large wave of children has been arriving from Central America in the 2016 fiscal year. The federal government has plans to add more government-run shelter beds. And federal officials launched a program last week to ensure immigrant families will attend their court hearings. The Family Case Management Program will assign case managers to 800 families in certain major cities across the United States so that they can retain low-cost attorneys, housing, and transportation.