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New York Times: Biden Admin Ignored Warnings About Migrant Child Labor, Punished Whistleblowers

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Image Credit: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Our guest Hannah Dreier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times, has published a bombshell new investigation headlined “As Migrant Children Were Put to Work, U.S. Ignored Warnings.” It reports that the Biden administration has repeatedly ignored or missed warnings about a surge of migrant children as young as 12 working in factories across the United States under grueling and often dangerous working conditions in serious violation of child labor laws. “People were punished for bringing this to the attention of their supervisors,” says Dreier.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times is reporting the Biden administration has repeatedly ignored or missed warnings about a surge of migrant children as young as 12 working in factories across the United States. The Times reports, quote, “At least five Health and Human Services staff members filed complaints and said they were pushed out after raising concerns about child safety,” unquote. One of the HHS staffers told The New York Times, quote, “I feel like short of protesting in the streets, I did everything I could to warn them. They just didn’t want to hear it,” she said.

In February, the Times published a blockbuster report about child labor based on accounts by over 100 unaccompanied migrant children, mostly from Central America, who described grueling and often dangerous working conditions, including having to use heavy machinery, being subjected to long hours and late-night shifts at facilities that manufacture products for major brands and retailers, like Hearthside Food Solutions, the makers of Cheerios, Fruit of the Loom, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, J.Crew, Frito-Lay and Ben & Jerry’s. Others were forced to work as cleaning staff at hotels, at slaughterhouses, construction sites, car factories owned by General Motors and Ford, in serious violation of child labor laws.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was grilled about the Biden administration’s response to forced child labor. This is Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY: You’re not going to take any responsibility for the indentured servitude and exploitation of children that is happening on your watch. A moment ago, you were crowing about the fact that you treated children so well, and yet we find tens of thousands of children who are forced to work as slaves because of your policies, and you turn around and blame a prior administration.

Mr. Secretary, this is par for the course for you. You do it every time you appear before this committee. You do it every time you appear before Congress. I, for one, am sick and tired of it. And thousands of children are in physical danger — danger — because of what you are doing. You should have resigned long ago. And if you cannot change course, you should be removed from office. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Hannah Dreier, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times. Her new investigation is headlined “As Migrant Children Were Put to Work, U.S. Ignored Warnings.” Dreier’s earlier piece was headlined “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.”

Hannah Dreier, welcome back to Democracy Now! We had you on for your first blockbuster exposé showing children as young as 12 working across the United States. Now you’re reporting that the Biden administration knew about this — not only knew about this and didn’t do anything, they actually did do something: They pushed out those within the administration who were raising alarms. Can you talk about what you found?

HANNAH DREIER: It’s great to be with you, Amy.

And yeah, just as you say, people were punished for bringing this to the attention of their supervisors. People say that they were fired, they were demoted. I spent a year talking to children who came to this country and are working in the most exploitative conditions in factories, in slaughterhouses. I found these children in every single state in this country. And so, after that story came out, I began asking, “How could it have been that the Biden administration didn’t know about this?”

And what I found was that, actually, they were given evidence. They were given warnings. There was sign after sign that this was happening for two years, and the administration really didn’t spring into action until just last month.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Hannah, I was particularly struck by the information about Susan Rice, the White House head of domestic policy, and her reaction to the reports that there were problems in terms of how these children were being treated. Could you talk about that? Because Susan Rice has been a person who has been in every Democratic administration over the last 30 years — Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and now Joe Biden.

HANNAH DREIER: Right. Susan Rice is a hugely important figure, and she is Biden’s top point person on immigration. So it’s not, you know, some junior staffer at the White House who maybe got a warning one time, and it didn’t get, you know, channeled in the appropriate way. What I found was that Susan Rice’s team was told about this again and again. And the kind of evidence we’re talking about are clusters of children found to be working in different parts of the country, repeatedly, in these very industrial jobs. So these are children making car parts. These are children using caustic chemicals and acids to scrub a chicken plant. And those messages got to Susan Rice’s level. Memos airing concerns about these issues got to Susan Rice’s level. Her team was told, going back to the summer of 2021, that people were very worried about this.

And what the White House has basically said is, “Well, maybe we saw these signs, but we didn’t put it all together.” What their response has been is sort of a lack of curiosity or a lack of conscientious thinking to realize that if we’re seeing kids in all these different places who are doing these jobs, maybe there is a larger trend here; maybe there’s thousands of these kids out there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, they did put it together sufficiently to force out five Health and Human Services staff members. Could you talk about those — some of those staff members and the alarms that they raised?

HANNAH DREIER: So, these are the people who were running the unaccompanied minor program for Health and Human Services. One of the women who I spoke with, Jallyn Sualog, she helped build this program. She started working for the government in 2010, right when we first started to see these waves of children coming over, and she was in charge of this program for years and years. She was the highest official running the program when Biden took over.

And what she says is she raised alarms. We’ve seen her emails where she’s saying something catastrophic is going to happen, and pleading with somebody to pay attention. When her emails went unanswered, she went to Congress, and she talked to Congress staffers and said again, “I’m really worried about what’s happening here. These children are in danger.”

And she was pushed out. She was one of five people who I spoke to who filed complaints, who showed me their emails where they were saying, you know, something really wrong is happening here. And they say that instead of being listened to, they were demoted, and people just did not want to hear these warnings.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, who was speaking on Tuesday.

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: This administration moved swiftly to crack down on violators and are more rigorously vet — more vigorously vet sponsors of unaccompanied minors. DOL and HHS launched a new task force to heighten cooperation and better share information. We also called on Congress to provide the resources this administration has long requested to help us crack down on companies that exploit children for labor. The actions we’ve taken since February make clear that we will continue to investigate and hold companies accountable, but we also need Congress to provide the resources we need to enforce. And we’ve been very clear. Again, DOL, HHS have taken actions. But we need Congress to also — to also give the — give DOL and HHS the resources that they need to broaden these actions that they’ve put forward.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the White House response. If you could respond to that? And particularly, talk about who is responsible for what. I mean, we saw this dramatic confrontation between Senator Hawley and Alejandro Mayorkas, who’s head of Homeland Security. Talk about what Homeland Security is responsible for — he was particularly angry that Mayorkas was blaming the Trump administration for separating children — what Homeland Security is responsible for, what HHS is responsible for. And tell us more about these whistleblowers who made clear, time and again, what was happening, and were not just not listened to, as was just pointed out, but were pushed out, one after another after another.

HANNAH DREIER: So, in fairness to the Biden administration, they have taken rapid action after our first story came out a month ago. And the Department of Labor is really ramping up the way that they’re going to try to go after these companies that exploit migrant children. And Health and Human Services has also taken some steps. What’s been just so shocking to me is that these steps were not taken earlier.

And one dynamic that people often point out is that a lot of this came in response to the crisis at the border, where children were coming in in record numbers right when Biden took office. And a lot of them were sort of languishing in Customs and Border Protection jails, because there wasn’t enough room in the shelter system to take them in. And so, there was wall-to-wall coverage of children sleeping on the floor, children under those tin blankets, and the Biden administration was really getting slammed on: “Why are these kids languishing in jails? I thought you were going to take care of them.” And so there was all this pressure in the administration to move those kids out quickly, because it was so visible when they were ending up sleeping on the floors, sleeping in these terrible conditions.

And what happened after that, with all these kids working, was much less visible. You know, nobody is going to go and have a big newsreel about children who are working in the poultry plant, because you can’t get in there. And so, it was sort of a trade-off, as it’s been explained to me, between this very visible crisis, where kids weren’t moving out of the shelters quickly enough, and this hidden crisis, where kids are now working these terrible jobs and often sort of languishing in debt bondage. And that’s just part of this dynamic that sort of comes up again and again.

The agencies that are responsible here are really Department of Labor and Health and Human Services. I know Mayorkas has been getting questioned about this, I think sort of as a proxy for the Biden administration. But the agency that is, you know, in charge of migrant children is Health and Human Services. It’s not like the regular immigration system. Children go to this different agency that’s supposed to be a child welfare agency. And it’s Health and Human Services that’s then responsible for releasing them to sponsors and protecting them from trafficking and exploitation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yeah, that’s what I wanted to ask you about, the role of Health and Human Services, because, obviously, we can understand the pressure that the Biden administration was under to get children out of the detention facilities, but then the responsibility had to fall on the agency that kept seeing one or another individual repeatedly offering to sponsor children, to monitor and check up what these — who was — what these sponsors were actually doing with the children. So, wouldn’t that fall largely on Health and Human Services?

HANNAH DREIER: Yes, that is Health and Human Services. And these staffers, who had to try to connect children with sponsors and move them out of shelters, tell me that, to them, this often felt worse than even during, you know, child separation under Trump. The people who work in this agency, they’re mostly Democrats. They mostly are in this work because they really believe that migrant children are important, and want to watch out for them. And they say that they felt this huge pressure to just get kids out of the shelter, to send them to whoever, to sent them to people who had already sponsored multiple children.

I spoke with one of these workers in Texas, who said that just in two weeks doing this job for Health and Human Services, she found six cases where children were being sent to people who said that they were intending to put the children to work or who had already sponsored other kids who were not their relatives. She flagged the case of one 14-year-old who was being sent to a nonrelative. And she said, “I’m really worried about this kid. I think this kid is being trafficked. I think this kid is going to have to pay off some kind of debt.” And as far as we can tell, nothing ever happened. I caught up with that kid two years later, and, sure enough, he was put to work. He had to drop out of middle school. He had to pay his own rent. He had to pay off thousands of dollars in debt. And he was just completely on his own, even though his case had been flagged by a whistleblower.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Hannah, we just have 30 seconds. What you were most shocked by in reporting this second exposé?

HANNAH DREIER: I just could not believe that this wasn’t flagged earlier. I mean, with something this widespread, thousands and thousands of children, you want to believe that people at the highest level of government are going to pay attention when they’re shown evidence of the worst kind of child labor exploitation.

AMY GOODMAN: Hannah Dreier, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times. We’ll link to your new investigation, “As Migrant Children Were Put to Work, U.S. Ignored Warnings,” and your previous piece, “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.”

Coming up, a rare victory in the immigrant rights movement as a judge rules longtime organizer Jean Montrevil will no longer be at risk of deportation to Haiti, ending a decades-long saga. Stay with us. Back in 30 seconds.

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