Full Measure: Broken Dreams

These photos were provided by U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar (D- Texas).The images were taken at a Customs and Border Protection facility in South Texas. They show unidentified immigrants who were detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

In the past six months, more than 23,000 kids under 18 have illegally walked across the Mexico border into the U.S. and turned themselves in to Customs and Border Protection.

It's the second surge in recent years of unaccompanied minors. Many are fleeing desperate, even life-threatening circumstances in Central America.

Once here, they're transferred to the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They receive help for medical issues, mental health, education, recreation, and legal and religious needs at more than 100 shelters in 12 states, while caseworkers look for adult sponsors to take them.

But there's a terrible untold story. It's what's happening to thousands of the youths once they begin their new life. Instead of the American dream, it's the worst kind of nightmare.

SEE ALSO | Full Measure: Border Control

Gil Kerlikowske is Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Kerlikowske: When I first took office in March of 2014, I was down in Texas within a week and that was the summer that we had well over 60,000 young people turn themselves in, mostly in McAllen, Texas.

Sharyl: Were you shocked to see it climb to those levels?

Kerlikowske: To go into a Border Patrol station and see kids sleeping in every possible corner on concrete without the resources of food services, healthcare, etc. and to see those Border Patrol Agents trying to feed those kids and bringing clothes from their own kids to give to them was pretty amazing.

They came and are still coming, from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D- Texas): You have unaccompanied kids fleeing very dangerous areas, like Honduras and other places, because of the drug violence and the very highest murder rates in the world and they're trying to flee that violence.

Thousands walk across the Mexican border with no parent or legal guardian, right into Congressman Henry Cuellar's home district in Laredo, Texas. He says the feds tried to keep the staggering extent of the problem under wraps.

Sharyl: Can you tell me how you learned about that and what the influx has been?

Rep. Cuellar: Actually, I got provided some photos by one of my friends that works on the border, and we provided those photos and that basically broke the story. Homeland doesn't tell local communities what's happening.

Since 2011, more than 125,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been allowed to illegally cross into the U.S. But if there's one thing more startling than the number, it's the hard truth about where some of them are going.

Sharyl: Now they've learned some of them have gone into the hands of abusers?

Rep. Cuellar: Exactly.

The disturbing information was first exposed when unidentified whistleblowers contacted Senator Charles Grassley.

Sharyl: One whistleblower apparently told your office, out of a sample of 29,000 adults allowed to take these children, 3,400 had known criminal histories. That's about one in eight. Aren't the sponsors supposed to undergo background checks?

Sen. Charles Grassley (R- Iowa):They are and they aren't doing it. They're telling us they don't have time. Well, it's the government's responsibility to be responsible for the safety of these people, and you wouldn't tolerate it in any other environment. You surely shouldn't tolerate it even for undocumented workers.

In late 2014, authorities uncovered a shocking example of what can go wrong. Eight illegal immigrant boys and two adults were being forced to live in dirty, unsafe trailers and work 12-hour days at an egg farm in Marion, Ohio. Arthur Carp was a neighbor.

Arthur Carp: You would not live in 'em. I guarantee you. Holes in the wall. Holes in the floor and just filthy. Roaches. Filthy.

It turns out an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, Pedro Juan, was part of a human trafficking network preying on the illegal children. The government had released the youths to her, after she falsely claimed to be a family friend. She took their paychecks and sent the money to co-conspirators. In all, six pleaded guilty in the case, including five foreigners. Four of them are illegal immigrants.

Carp: These kids were terrified. They had them lined up against the trailer when they raided. I felt sorry for them, because they were crying.

The egg farm managers weren't charged. They said they had no idea their labor subcontractor was trafficking people.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, has handed illegal immigrant children over to convicted felons in the U.S., according to a source with access to Department of Homeland Security information: assault, sexual offense against a child, even homicide.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D- Missouri): I find the situation in front of us today unacceptable and I am disgusted and angry.

At a Senate Homeland Security hearing in January, Claire McCaskill and other Senators were outraged by the Marion, Ohio egg farm case and other examples they uncovered.

A child from Guatemala fleeing sexual abuse was forced to work as a cashier in the U.S. and pay her guardian $1600 a month.

A 16-year old was released to someone in the U.S. who claimed to be her cousin, but turned out to be no relation and forced her into sex.

A child from El Salvador was released to an adult in the U.S. who had abused him before and continued the abuse, while forcing him to work as a dishwasher and movie theater janitor.

Senator Rob Portman: It's intolerable that human trafficking, really modern-day slavery could occur in our own backyard in the 21st century, but it does. What makes this Marion case even more alarming is that a U.S. government agency was actually responsible for delivering some of the victims into the hands of the abusers.

Sen. McCaskill: When a child is admitted into our country, the United States of America should be an example to the world about how we care for those children.

HHS Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg admitted the agency has no idea how many children its placed with convicted felons, but he promised that gaps are being fixed.

Asst. Sec. Mark Greenberg: Child safety is a priority for us. We are committed to making, continuing to make revisions to strengthen our policies, to learn all that we can from this and our ongoing experiences in operating the program.

Concern is heightened with the current surge in unaccompanied minors. In one region, the numbers are up more than 500% over the same period a year ago. In just five months from October, 2015 through February, 2016, 2,930 kids came into the Tucson, Arizona border sector. Thirteen thousand nine hundred and forty-six minors arrived in Rio Grande Valley, Texas.

Sen. Grassley: And the government creates the problem by inviting these people in, or at least not doing anything to keep 'em out, and then they come here and there's so many of them that the government can't house 'em, so they want to get 'em out of sight out of mind as fast as they can, so just get 'em someplace.

Rep. Cuellar says the true number of illegal juveniles coming to the U.S. without parents is even bigger than we've counted. That's because some human traffickers arrange for people to fake the role of parent and sneak children in.

Last year, a woman in Brazil admitted she paid smugglers $13,000, flew to Mexico City where she was "paired" with a child, and they crossed illegally into the U.S. with her pretending to be the mother. Today, the whereabouts of the child is unknown.

HHS Assistant Secretary Greenberg says the government is doing everything it can to ensure the kids are safe.

Greenberg: Most children are placed with a parent. We only turn to family friends if there is no suitable parent or relative and in all cases, when we make placements, we seek to balance the importance of timely release with safeguards, which are designed to maximize safety.

Sharyl: At a hearing, HHS assured Congress that its shoring up the gaps and fixing its problems. Have you been satisfied with the answers the government has provided to date?

Sen. Grassley: Absolutely not. If they aren't gonna do background investigations, and we don't have any indication they are, they aren't doing their job.

Paul Beeson is a top U.S. Customs and Border Protection official in Arizona. He says agents are prepared for the latest onslaught.

Commander Paul Beeson: I think we're better positioned to handle the phenomenon now to where we're not going to be overwhelmed by it, but it is something that continues to occur.

Rep. Cuellar: Once they come in, I think we have an obligation as a country to make sure those juveniles don't go from a very difficult situation into the hands of somebody that can take advantage of them, and I think we need to do a better job at making sure that we ensure the safety of those kids.

To help make that happen, Rep. Cuellar says he plans to push for legislation in the coming months. The HHS agency responsible for the kids, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, spent $948 million tax dollars in 2015. It will spend another $948 million this year serving the illegal children.

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