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The Columbus Dispatch: Portman demands answers on teen-smuggling ring

Holly Zachariah | July 14

A federal indictment that charged four people with illegally smuggling Guatemalan teenagers into the United States and forcing them to work at Ohio egg farms indicates that some of the teens had gone through an immigration process that might have put them directly into the hands of the traffickers.

Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and co-chairman of the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, said that’s alarming.

He sent a letter on Monday demanding answers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the process for unaccompanied minors who come into this country and are then apprehended by immigration officials.

According to the charges against those accused of running the forced-labor ring, at least five of the victims had been through a process involving the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in which unaccompanied immigrant children are placed under the care and custody of the ORR office.

Federal law requires that that office be responsible for all aspects of their care until a sponsor comes forward and seeks custody. ORR’s website refers to its “strong policies” in place because “these children may have histories of abuse or may be seeking safety from threats of violence. They may have been trafficked or smuggled.”

The government’s website says that sponsors are generally family members, must have passed a background check and must agree that they will adequately care for the children, keep them safe from abuse and cooperate with the immigration process.

In this case, the indictment said the traffickers recruited vulnerable Guatemalan juveniles and brought them to the U.S., then arranged to “have an associate falsely represent himself to immigration officials as the victim’s family friend and submit fraudulent Family Reunification Applications to ORR.”

Each juvenile, based on that paperwork, was released from immigration’s custody. Then, according to court documents, Aroldo Rigoberto Castillo-Serrano (identified by federal authorities as the labor conspiracy’s ringleader) immediately isolated them in unsafe and dilapidated trailers in rural Marion County and forced them to work as many as 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, at local egg farms.

“If true, it appears that the ORR child-placement process had gravely failed,” Portman wrote in the letter to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “A single case of human trafficking is harmful enough. But if ORR does not have adequate safeguards in place, there is cause for concern that this has happened in other cases and could happen again."

Read the full story here.