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Congress ramps up investigation into migrant child labor in the U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Congress is ramping up its probe into reports regarding hundreds of cases of migrant child labor in the U.S. Today, a House panel grilled a top government official responsible for placing these children in safe homes. Here's Republican Glenn Grothman, who chairs a House oversight subcommittee. He's asking that official about reports that the program lost track of 85,000 migrant children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBIN DUNN MARCOS: We do not track or monitor...

GLENN GROTHMAN: The answer is no. There are 85,000 kids who came across the border we don't know. Is that right? Apparently, it is.

CHANG: The Democrats argue this program is just one piece in a much larger crisis highlighted in recent reports by The New York Times. Joining us now from the Capitol is NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales.

Hey, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what did we learn from today's hearing?

GRISALES: Well, we heard from this top official testifying today that they need Congress' help. This official is a director of the so-called Office of Refugee Resettlement Program. They're charged with placing these unaccompanied migrant children in homes after a child arrives at the border and is transferred out of the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. This director, Robin Dunn Marcos, defended her program's actions, saying they don't have enough resources to track these 85,000 children. And they need Congress' help to expand services for these children after they're placed in these homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCOS: I think continued support in expanding post-release services and legal services are critical to providing care for these children.

GRISALES: And we should note this 85,000 figure refers to migrant children that The New York Times reported went through the program in the first two years of the Biden administration. We also heard Robin Dunn Marcos say that they are looking into an audit to investigate this further and coordinating more with the Department of Labor. But Democrats argued that this program, which is under the Health and Human Services Department, is largely not equipped to be in touch with these children after placement. And that's one area where Congress can help.

CHANG: Well, how is the Biden administration responding to these reports?

GRISALES: Today, the White House said that child labor is unacceptable and that the administration is taking actions to crack down on related violations and increase scrutiny of companies that do business with employers who violate child labor laws. But they're also calling on Congress to make these fixes that are possible here. The oversight panel's top Democrat, Robert Garcia, touched on this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT GARCIA: We also need to have a serious conversation about how we make sure that we're fully enforcing our labor laws and holding corporations accountable when they knowingly and illegally profit from child labor. So I personally support legislation to crack down on these unethical employers.

GRISALES: So we also heard frustration from him and other Democrats with Republicans that employers tied to these practices of child labor were not part of today's hearing. And they also defended the role of the Biden administration here, saying it's been a difficult transition from how migrant children were treated previously under the Trump administration, with images of children being held in caged areas.

CHANG: Exactly. Well, what are the next steps at this point to address all of this?

GRISALES: Republicans say that a crackdown on border security is the answer here. Several noted that the House Judiciary Committee will soon begin work on a GOP border security bill, but we don't expect that to go far with the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House. House Democrats are asking for bipartisan help, but there's not much hope there. But this has become part of a larger national conversation about child labor laws.

CHANG: Right.

GRISALES: But for now, Senate Democrats are considering legislation to stop these efforts on child labor. But with divided government, it will be a difficult task for Congress to get on the same page.

CHANG: Indeed. That is NPR's Claudia Grisales.

Thank you, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thank you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.