The same day that Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra faced criticism on Capitol Hill from members of both parties about reports of underage migrants working dangerous jobs, Labor Department officials announced a 44% increase in the number of children it found to be employed illegally.
During a hearing Wednesday on immigrant child labor, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif, told Becerra that she was not satisfied with his agency’s response to questions she and 25 other House members had sent him in late May. After reports of child labor surfaced, they sent Becerra a letter asking about how carefully HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which finds homes for unaccompanied migrant minors, was vetting the sponsors who were offering to host the children.
“If ORR is ‘meeting and exceeding its statutory requirements,’ why are we witnessing such an alarming rise in the exploitation of children discharged from the agency’s custody?” she asked.
Becerra acknowledged during the hearing of the oversight subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee that the reports of child labor are “real” and “repulsive” and acknowledged that unaccompanied minors are uniquely vulnerable to dangerous jobs, but also pushed back. He said the agency’s vetting of sponsors remains thorough and agency oversight legally ends once children leave ORR’s care and are placed with a sponsor.
“Once we release that child into the hands of a vetted sponsor we lose that custodial responsibility,” Becerra told the committee. “If Congress wants to give us more responsibility to watch over these kids even after they have been assigned to a sponsor, please go right ahead.”
More than 260,000 unaccompanied migrant children have passed through ORR and been released to communities in 2021 and 2022, according to HHS figures.
In response to criticism, HHS announced a new accountability team in June for “assessing and addressing potential child exploitation risks” with the unaccompanied children program.
Labor Department touts enforcement
Also on Wednesday, senior Labor Department officials told reporters their efforts to crack down on child labor had yielded some success. They said investigators found more than 4,400 children employed in violation of child labor laws since October, a 44% increase over Oct. 1, 2021, to July 20, 2022.
A senior Labor official said that the department attributes the bump in enforcement to the agency’s recent emphasis on enforcing child labor laws.
Labor officials also cited an 87% increase in company fines to $6.6 million during the same time frame, although critics say the $15,138 maximum fines for hiring children are so low that they do not deter employers from hiring underage workers in a tight labor market.
But Labor officials acknowledge there is “plenty more work to do.” Some violations continue to elude department investigators.
Just last week a 16-year-old Guatemalan died while cleaning equipment at a Mississippi poultry plant. The accident at the Mar-Jac Poultry plant in Hattiesburg was the second equipment death at the plant in two years. Labor Department officials say they are investigating possible child labor violations at Mar-Jac as well as an ongoing death investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The company says it is cooperating.
The company blamed the hiring of the teen on a staffing company and said the “individual’s age and identity were misrepresented on the paperwork.”
Recently the department employed a rarely used provision that halts the shipment of any goods made with child labor in a case involving a Minnesota meat snacks company where Labor investigators found two teenagers had been hired.
The “hot goods” provision has so far not been employed against Mar-Jac Poultry. Senior Labor officials characterized their ongoing investigation of Mar-Jac as “very active.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com