Three of four defendants accused of luring Guatemalan teens to work at an Ohio farm in slave conditions have pled guilty in a case highlighting how human traffickers can take advantage of an overwhelmed US immigration system.
In December, Pablo Duran Jr. pled guilty to one count of harboring an illegal alien for his involvement in running a company that hired and managed trafficking victims at an Ohio egg farm, reported the Associated Press (AP).
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the four defendants and their associates promised workers from Guatemala -- some as young as 14 -- good jobs and a chance to attend school. The defendants then brought eight minors and two adults to a dilapidated trailer park in Marion, Ohio, forcing them to work long hours and hand over wages as pay for their passage to the United States.
In order to take custody of some of the children detained at the border, the traffickers filed false paperwork with the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), taking advantage of US legislation which holds that Central American minors seeking asylum be detained and placed with sponsors, according to the AP.
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The number of unaccompanied children detained at the US southwest border has exploded in recent years. Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 was particularly overwhelming for authorities, with a 77 percent increase in apprehended minors (nearly 70,000 in total) compared to FY 2013.
In 2014, faced with more minors than it could house, the HHS lowered its safety standards for transferring youth to sponsors' homes, no longer requiring fingerprints or original birth certificates for most sponsors, according to an AP investigation.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Trafficking
When news of the Ohio case broke in July 2015, HHS responded by adding more home visits and background checks for sponsors, and increasing the capacity of detention beds from 7,900 to 8,400. In the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), the United States also introduced a program for unaccompanied children to apply for asylum. However, The New York Times reported that only 90 children have been interviewed since the program began in December 2014, with not a single one entering the United States owing to delays and slow-moving bureaucracy.
It remains to be seen, however, if such measures prove enough to close the gaps that allow for human traffickers to exploit the overwhelmed US system to find and abuse workers. Although 2014 experienced by far the largest crisis in unaccompanied Central American children -- the time when the Ohio human trafficking operation was active -- the Department of Homeland Security reports that FY 2016 has seen a 117 percent increase in minors apprehended compared to the same time period in FY 2015, rising from 8,000 to 17,400. Such numbers create concern for continued opportunities for US-based human traffickers to exploit the US immigration system.