When unaccompanied minors arrive from Canada or Mexico, they are subject to expedited repatriation procedures at the border.

But minors from all other countries are treated differently. They are given an immigration hearing, access to counsel and advocates, and entered into an asylum process which lasts years. During this time, some youth are placed with relatives, and the majority will live with immigrant sponsor families.

Why the different federal responses? The William Wilberforce anti-trafficking law, passed in 2008 to protect trafficking victims. This well-meaning legislation had unintended consequences; most importantly, an explosion of underage minors at the border as people realized that children would be admitted more easily than adults. About 130,000  minors arrived last year.

President Obama blamed the William Wilberforce law for his inability to respond effectively to the child migrant surge during his administration.

During President Biden’s administration a record 2.5 million migrants arrived, two thirds from Central America. At the border last year 853 migrants died, a new high. Women and girls report being raped by traffickers. Nevertheless, families hire cartels to sneak their teenagers across the border so they can get jobs and send money home. The New York Times reports that trafficking profits of the cartels have exploded from an estimated $500 million in 2018 to $13 billion annually.

What happens to the youth placed with American sponsors? According to a blistering expose in The New York Times published in February, rather than attending school as required, hundreds of migrant children are working in perilous, low-wage factory jobs in violation of child labor laws. About 85,000 children have been lost to child welfare agencies.

Some sponsors expected the children to pay for their keep, but mostly the children wanted to work to pay the debts their families owed the cartels, who often threaten or  use torture to get paid. These children have become 21st century indentured servants.


The Times found underage children throughout the country and in the supply chains of major U.S. corporations, including Walmart, General Motors and dairy factories that supply Ben & Jerry’s. Many work in temp agencies who ignore fraudulent identity documents.

The Times estimates that up to two-thirds of underage migrants end up working full time. Paradoxically, well-intentioned humanitarian reforms pushed by migrant advocates to streamline underage migration at the border have only encouraged more families to take risks and hire the cartels.

Last year Central American countries received more than $30 billion in remittances from migrants working in America. But very little of this money is funding the infrastructure to build their economies. And there are problems.

David Stoll is a cultural anthropologist and Middlebury professor whose research focuses on the indigenous people of  Central America. His years of fieldwork in the Guatemalan highlands offers a unique perspective on the underlying causes and results of mass migration.

He describes a debt/migration spiral that has turned “asylum applications into a charade for exploitation.” He doubts that adding more safeguards to keep children in school will help, because most underage youth are sent to the U.S. for precisely this reason — to work.

As the numbers exploded, trafficking costs reduced and smuggling networks slashed prices, making their service available to more families. While remittances increased prosperity for some, they have also driven wealth disparities, inflated prices, and increased the need for more people to migrate, separating far more families than during the Trump administration.

How did we get here? Professor Stoll points to oft-repeated claims from activists that migrants are escaping horrendous violence, and that the only compassionate response is to accept all applicants. But in polls, Hispanic migrants “unequivocally” report they come for economic opportunity, not asylum. The wage disparity between our countries is huge.

The solution? Stop exploiting cheap foreign labor. Pass universal E-Verify. Enforce immigration laws at the worksite. Put human traffickers out of business. And inspire Central Americans to take charge of their countries, too.

 Jonette Christian of Holden is a founder of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy

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