PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Lawmakers are demanding answers following reports of a federal probe into the potential labor trafficking of migrant teens in Woodburn, Oregon.
According to a report from Bloomberg Law, the federal government has launched a multi-agency investigation to determine whether unaccompanied migrant teens were released from government custody to labor traffickers who sent them to work on agricultural plants in Woodburn and other locations.
“These kids are coming across the border seeking a better life, only to be sold into a trafficking situation? That’s incredulous and horrible,” Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader told KOIN 6 News.
The investigation comes as the US faces a record numbers of migrant minors crossing the border unattended. According to a Congressional Research Service report, the US has already documented 90,000 encounters with unaccompanied minors at the border — more than the 75,000 total reported for 2019.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), tasked with finding suitable placements for unaccompanied children apprehended at the border, reported releasing over 75,000 unaccompanied children to sponsors from October 2020 to July 2021.
Congressman Schrader represents Woodburn and is one of many lawmakers calling for transparency regarding the investigation. Schrader told KOIN 6 News leaders on both sides of the aisle are appalled by these claims and working to get to the bottom of this issue.
“It’s very frustrating to be honest with you! It’s pretty amazing for this to be happening in my own backyard and not getting any intelligence from the Department of Justice or anybody else,” Schrader explained. “As a delegation we’re trying to get on this and get some answers as to what the heck is going on.”
In a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra obtained by KOIN 6 News, Congressman Luis Correa of California said, “If true [the investigation], this is deeply disturbing. I am requesting a briefing on the investigation as soon as possible.”
He added, “The United States has a moral responsibility to ensure that children are released to family members or to safe sponsors, and not to work in agricultural processing plants.”
According to the report by Bloomberg law, emails from the U.S. Justice Department’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit describe dozens of minors aged 13 to 17 being released to Woodburn and Enterprise, Alabama (sometimes to the same sponsor). This caused the federal foster care system to issue a stop-placement order, pausing the placement of unaccompanied migrant children in the Woodburn area.
But why have so many children potentially slipped through the cracks? Following similar trafficking investigations of unaccompanied migrants in 2019, former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claimed these cases often involve traffickers posing as family. She said “cases of ‘fake families’ are popping up everywhere. And children are being used as pawns.”
Schrader described witnessing similar trafficking attempts during his time at the border. “There are unfortunately a number of folks that will masquerade as an uncle, a father or even a mother of a child – only to find out later it’s an unaccompanied minor that has been ‘partnered’ up with these folks to help them get across the border,” he described. “I can see very easily where these types of folks would take advantage of those kids.”
HHS spokesperson Tesia Williams told KOIN 6 News, “The safety of children in HHS custody is of utmost priority for our agency. If we become aware of allegations that unaccompanied children are being trafficked, we will notify the proper state and federal authorities.”
“We need to stop this now,” said Congressman Schrader. “We need to put some safety measures in place and make sure when we are releasing these kids to sponsors that they truly are sponsors and these folks are vetted out so that these kids are not at risk.”
Congressman Schrader told KOIN 6 News, despite their inquiries he and his constituents have not yet been briefed on this matter. He urges anyone with information contact law enforcement.