Posted on August 19, 2021

U.S. Probes Trafficking of Teen Migrants for Poultry-Plant Work

Ben Penn and Ellen Gilmer, Bloomberg, August 19, 2021

Federal law enforcement officials are investigating whether unaccompanied migrant teenagers have been released from government custody to labor traffickers who sent them to work in agricultural processing facilities in numerous cities, according to an internal email and two sources briefed on the situation.

“Since we spoke last month about indicators of labor exploitation and/or potential labor trafficking of unaccompanied minors in Alabama, HTPU [the U.S. Justice Department’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit] has become aware of similar concerns in multiple other jurisdictions,” wrote HTPU Director Hilary Axam on July 21 to personnel at four other agencies, in an email obtained by Bloomberg Law.

“Some of these situations appear to involve dozens of unaccompanied minors all being released to the same sponsor and then exploited for labor in poultry processing or similar industries without access to education,” Axam’s message continued.

The probes by DOJ and other agencies coincide with a record-breaking levels this year of undocumented children who’ve been apprehended at the border with Mexico and housed temporarily in often-overcrowded facilities run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or nonprofit partners. U.S. authorities reported more than 90,000 encounters in the first nine months of fiscal 2021, already exceeding the fiscal 2019 record of 76,000.


On a single day in early August, HHS reported more than 15,000 children in the agency’s care, plus another 1,700 with U.S. Customs and Border Protection—which holds unaccompanied children briefly before turning them over to HHS. The agency released 578 children to sponsors that day.

HHS—charged with providing temporary shelter for the children while identifying suitable adults in the U.S. who can take them in—recently halted sending children to at least two agriculture-dense areas that are under federal investigation for trafficking {snip}

The sources identified Enterprise, Ala., and Woodburn, Ore., as two of the areas under investigation, although it’s unclear how many additional jurisdictions Axam’s email referred to by “multiple” or how many total children—all aged 13 to 17—have potentially been exploited by traffickers. Those cities were flagged as suspicious because HHS had released dozens of children to sponsors in each location, in some cases to the same individual, said the sources.


The DOJ lawyer described “significant numbers of minors and sponsors involved.” She asked other agencies for aid in analyzing data “to spot red flags that’ll help focus our investigative efforts.”


HHS stopped placements of unaccompanied minors to the Alabama ZIP code that includes Enterprise in early June, according to one representative for a nonprofit that works with migrants. The office has since allowed some placements with biological parents to move forward, subject to extra safeguards {snip}


HHS is motivated to release children quickly, to minimize their time in large shelters and comply with a landmark 1997 legal settlement favoring release. But pressure to move swiftly can undermine efforts to ensure children are ending up in safe homes.

A 2015 federal indictment revealed that HHS during the Obama administration—prior to Carey’s tenure—released several children to traffickers who forced them to live in trailers and work at egg farms in Ohio by promising the children good jobs and a chance to attend U.S. schools.