I was part of a large political team in the Trump administration that tried to stop cartel-driven human smuggling and trafficking into the United States. We learned federal agencies and bureaucrats were more interested in preserving a broken system than preventing the abuse of children, and they were using your tax dollars to do so. The Biden administration continues to fight for that broken system, which also continues to put Americans at risk of great harm.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is statutorily responsible for handling the housing and resettlement of dependent foreign nationals who enter the United States, including so-called unaccompanied alien children, or UACs. A UAC is a child whom employees of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) encounter at a U.S. port of entry or along the border not in the custody of a verifiable parent or guardian.
Once DHS identifies a child as a UAC, that child is transferred to an appropriate private facility funded by HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). In theory, each child is then cared for by that ORR-funded facility until he or she can either be placed with an appropriate sponsor who is already in the United States (ideally, an actual family member with appropriate resources) or returned to his or her home country.
This is how the process is supposed to work, according to current federal law. What we found really happening was quite disturbing.
Mexican cartels have known for years that our southern border and immigration system could be manipulated for substantial profit. These cartels have developed an admittedly impressive business model that can get children and even adults from anywhere in the world into the United States by presenting them as children at our overwhelmed southern border.
For the right price, the cartels will transport customers or their human parcels to our southern border and present them to the Border Patrol as children. Some of these are actual innocent minors—and many of them are horrifically abused on their journey before they reach our border—but many are not innocent, and some are not even children.
Some are technically minors but also very violent members of Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, or other violent gangs or criminal organizations that wreak havoc in our hemisphere. Others are adults but might appear young enough to pass as teenagers. Sometimes the cartels try to pass these individuals off as part of fictional family units.
You might think that DHS would conduct due diligence in every instance to determine the ages and identities of these individuals, but sadly, it does not. In our engagement on this subject during the Trump administration, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel refused to conduct any systematic inquiry of people who presented themselves as minors at the border, even when they had good reason to believe they were being given false information.
This does not mean CBP personnel never followed up in situations of concern, and some individuals who were adults pretending to be children were identified. But some CBP personnel balked at an across-the-board approach. To paraphrase a couple of the men and women who talked to us behind the scenes about this problem, the volume of border encounters was just too high, and management had prioritized speed over accuracy.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) personnel also refused to receive such foreign individuals for temporary detention pending biometric and biographic data collection, so we could identify adults or bad actors. In theory, ICE could have been a huge asset here by receiving temporary custody of individuals whose identities or ages were uncertain and using their law enforcement and forensic resources to get some answers. But ICE career officials fought this, frequently citing resource limits, or even claiming it “wasn’t their job.”
In short, some at CBP and ICE were only too happy to rush potentially inappropriate people, including adults and criminals, out of their hands and to ORR-funded facilities that were intended to house non-criminal minors.
MS-13 and other gang members who cleared the DHS gauntlet and were able to infiltrate ORR’s child-filled facilities thanks to DHS’s negligence were essentially empowered to recruit for their gangs at taxpayer expense. They were housed and fed until their claimed 18th birthday (again, based solely on the alien’s original assertion of age at the point of detention).
At that point, they were released into the United States on their own recognizance instead of being remanded to ICE for removal from the United States. In essence, these criminal organizations were shifting housing, transportation, and recruitment costs to the American taxpayer because they could rely on the U.S. government to turn a blind eye and care for their operatives with no questions asked.
Beginning in the Obama administration, serious incident reports of actual or suspected gang activity—and other potential criminal or inappropriate activity at these facilities, including sexual assaults of these children by facility staff—were brushed under the rug by HHS instead of being referred to the Department of Justice for investigation and prosecution.
In 2020, we were able to determine that a large percentage of individuals who had been indicted by the Department of Justice in previous years for MS-13 homicides had been UACs under the supervision of ORR. Some had serious incident reports on file indicating gang affiliations. If DHS and HHS personnel had done their jobs, their murders might not have happened.
Both HHS and DHS were only too happy to have these incident reports ignored because their revelation would have exposed agency failure to get a handle on the problems in these facilities. While our DHS and HHS political leadership began to make a dent in restoring a meaningful referral process, it was a gargantuan task. It is unclear if the Biden administration is still making those referrals.
In addition to the safety and security issues within these facilities, ORR did—and still does—a horrendous job vetting potential UAC sponsors and fought every effort by the Trump administration to improve the sponsor vetting process. Sponsor applicants, many of whom were also illegally present in the United States, were required to complete a “Family Reunification Application,” which sought only pro forma information from applicants and not information about true fitness or capacity to care for a child.
There were also zero consequences for an applicant if he or she provided inaccurate or untruthful information. Failure to provide information did not necessarily prevent placement.
Also, despite having the total universe of federal resources at their fingertips, ORR employees used BackgroundChecks.com, a private-sector employment tool and not a law enforcement database, to see if potential sponsors had criminal records or other background issues. The bottom line was, it was easier to sponsor a UAC than it was to adopt a dog from an animal shelter.
When our team uncovered the true depth of the problem and told HHS that we needed to improve the sponsor vetting process to ensure the safety of unaccompanied alleged minors, we were fought with every ounce of the bureaucracy’s energy. We were told by career officials, for example, that any effort to find out more about potential sponsors would cost too much.
This turned out to be inaccurate, but also would be an irresponsible answer even in a fiscally responsible era. In our age of multi-trillion-dollar budgets and a $29 trillion national debt, it is downright insulting.
In 2020, the Trump administration instructed ICE’s Homeland Security and Investigations Division to conduct an audit of some of ORR’s UAC sponsor placements in fiscal year 2019 to try and get a sense of the fitness of existing sponsors. Horrifyingly, hundreds of UACs out of an overall sample of a few thousand could not be located or were no longer with the sponsors with whom they were originally placed. They were just gone. This was a sample of a much larger UAC population across the United States, which means the actual number of missing UACs was likely much, much higher.
Were these missing individuals really MS-13 members who went on to join fellow gang members? Were they sold into hard labor or sex slavery to pay off a debt to the cartels? Were they put on a plane and “recycled” as part of another cartel fake family unit? We ran out of time before we were able to find out, but the answer to these questions is likely all of the above.
In the first few weeks of the Biden administration, Trump administration efforts to prevent abuses of our immigration system, to improve the UAC sponsor vetting process, and shut down illicit revenue streams were pulled down, and the cartels breathed a sigh of relief.
Since then, the Biden administration has made it increasingly clear, through both action and inaction, that it does not take child smuggling and trafficking seriously, and is even willing to accept these as a cost of their open borders agenda. If anything, their total failure at the border is going to lead to thousands more bad actors entering with impunity and thousands more children disappearing.
If Americans really care about the health, safety, and welfare of the innocent children who are being smuggled and trafficked into the United States, our first step has to be to stop our federal government from being part of the problem and make it part of the solution.
John A. Zadrozny served as a Deputy Assistant to the President and Acting Chief of Staff at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump Administration.