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Congressional lawmakers raise concerns about the welfare of migrant children

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Images of kids sleeping in small cells in overcrowded facilities gained international attention in recent years, as record numbers of unaccompanied children crossed the southern border. Now, to fix this, government officials work with sponsors to house them as they make their way through the immigration system, but the thing is, that system is under scrutiny. Reports show the government lost track of 85,000 migrant children, and some of those children may have been forced into labor in the U.S. Hearings this week are expected to be part of a series of congressional efforts investigating this issue. Joining us now is NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. So what concerns did lawmakers raise about the vetting process that puts these minors with sponsors here in the U.S.?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Right. Republican Glenn Grothman - he chairs a House oversight subcommittee - says that while it is the responsibility of this program under the Health and Human Services Department to place these child migrants in the care of sponsors, there are concerns that these children were released in, quote, "assembly line" speed to poorly vetted sponsors instead. The director of this program, which is called the Office of Refugee Resettlement, defended the agency's actions, saying recently that the vast majority of the unaccompanied minors in their care were placed with a close family member. But lawmakers said that was not enough to ensure their safety.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and meanwhile, The New York Times cited significant cases of kids who disappeared and became victims of child labor. So how did the director respond to that reporting?

GRISALES: Right. This director, Robin Dunn Marcos, said that they need Congress' help to address this problem. She said they are not equipped to track these children after they are placed in new homes and need funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBIN DUNN MARCOS: I think continued support in expanding post-release services and legal services are critical to providing care for these children.

GRISALES: Several Republicans, however, kept highlighting this figure you mentioned, which was reported by The New York Times, that this program lost track of 85,000 children in the first two years of the Biden administration.

MARTÍNEZ: And what are they saying?

GRISALES: The White House said yesterday through press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre that this is unacceptable, and they are calling on Congress to make fixes. The House oversight subpanel's top Democrat, Robert Garcia, touched on what that could look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT GARCIA: We also need to have a serious conversation about how we make sure that we're fully enforcing our labor laws and holding corporations accountable when they knowingly and illegally profit from child labor. So I personally support legislation to crack down on these unethical employers.

GRISALES: Democrats also defended the role of the Biden White House, saying it's been a difficult transition from how migrant children were treated under the previous Trump administration, where we saw these images of children being held in these fenced-off areas.

MARTÍNEZ: And I know these hearings are very politicized, often politicized, but we're talking about kids working dangerous jobs in some cases. I mean, is there any bipartisan solutions being offered at this point for this problem?

GRISALES: Not at this point. It's going to be a really, really tall order for Congress. Republicans say that a crackdown on border security is the answer here. And several noted that the House Judiciary Committee will now begin work on a GOP border security bill, but we do not expect that to go far with a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House. House Democrats are asking for a bipartisan solution, but that's going to be really difficult for Congress to get on the same page here.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thanks a lot.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.