WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration said Monday that it is creating a new task force to crack down on an explosion of the illegal exploitation of migrant children for labor in the U.S.
Hundreds of companies that employed nearly 4,000 children last year were found in violation of federal labor laws, a dramatic increase in the last five years.
The growing problem has put Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in the hot seat, with concerns mounting that migrant children have been discharged from shelters and out of federal custody too quickly, pushing them into vulnerable situations where they’re more likely to become victims of child labor.
In a new video that’s been circulating, first reported by The New York Times, the secretary urged his staff to discharge children from the federal government’s broken system of shelters faster.
“If Henry Ford had seen this in his plants, he would have never become famous and rich,” Becerra told staff during a meeting last summer in a recording. “This is not the way you do an assembly line.”
The Times’ investigation identified more than 100 migrant children, some as young as 12 years old, who say they’re working overnight shifts and dangerous jobs for companies big and small throughout the U.S.
President Joe Biden still has “full confidence” in Becerra, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday when asked about the secretary’s job in light of the new report.
“Of course the president does not believe that processing migrants should be treated like an assembly line, and neither does Secretary Becerra,” she said.
Becerra has long been viewed as an advocate for immigrants. He often talks about his own parents’ experience immigrating from Mexico to the U.S.
The administration has struggled with how to respond to a surge of migrants, including children who travel alone, at the U.S. border since Biden first took office. In the fiscal year that ended last September, migrants were stopped 2.38 million times, up 37% from 1.73 million times the year before. The total was more than twice the highest level during Donald Trump’s presidency in 2019.
HHS and the Department of Labor rolled out new policies and the task force on Monday, while also promising stronger follow up for children who are moved from shelters to live with sponsors in the U.S. The agency will help migrant children register for school. It will also now require staff to follow up with children who call the Office of Refugee Resettlement National Call Center to report safety concerns.
The Labor Department also threatened to halt the shipment of products made with child labor.