Padilla, Durbin Ask Sec. Becerra for Answers Regarding Reports That Warnings of Threats to the Safety and Well-Being of Unaccompanied Migrant Children Were Dismissed

 Senators seek information related to alleged “whistleblower chilling” by HHS against staff who reported concerns about the risk of labor exploitation and trafficking of unaccompanied children

CALIFORNIA — U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, and U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra requesting information related to reports that HHS received warnings that unaccompanied children were being released from HHS custody into situations that presented a risk of labor exploitation and trafficking. Rather than heeding these warnings, HHS allegedly engaged in retaliation against staff who reported concerns and created an environment that the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) described as “whistleblower chilling.”

In the letter, the Senators outline their oversight responsibilities to protect these children’s safety: “As Chairs of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, it is our responsibility to conduct oversight over implementation of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) and ensure that HHS is meeting its legal obligations under that Act with respect to the care and protection of unaccompanied children.”

The Senators close their letter by outlining the vulnerability of our most recent arrivals, before outlining the information sought: “We also appreciate the challenges your agencies have faced at the border with the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border in recent years, as well as ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement]’s ongoing efforts to provide care and timely release for children in their custody. The Committee is tasked with ensuring that HHS is meeting its legal obligations to protect the safety and well-being of our most vulnerable recent arrivals. Oversight of the placement and care of unaccompanied children is particularly necessary today, as some states are loosening child labor laws and others are refusing to ensure that unaccompanied children have any mechanisms to report exploitation, abuse, or trafficking.”

The Senators’ letter concludes by asking for a series of documents and communications by July 20, 2023.

Earlier this month, Padilla co-chaired a committee hearing where he condemned the labor exploitation of migrant children in the United States and called on the federal government to enforce the law and hold employers unlawfully exploiting migrant children accountable. Padilla also led a letter with Senator John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) to the CEOs of the major companies accused of child labor exploitation, calling on them to take full responsibility for the actions of their companies.

In March, Senator Padilla questioned U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oversight of the Department of Justice (DOJ) following a  New York Times report in February detailing abuse and exploitation of migrant children. 

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