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Overwhelmed federal officials released immigrant teens to traffickers in 2014

The following article, written by Abbie VanSickle, appeared in January 26, 2016 in the Washington Post. ABLE attorney Jessica Ramos was quoted in the article. Read the introduction below and the full article on the Washington Post's website.

Overwhelmed federal officials released immigrant teens to traffickers in 2014

NEW BLOOMINGTON, Ohio — On the phone, the boy was frantic. After traveling hundreds of miles from a village in Guatemala, he had made it across the U.S. border and into a government-funded shelter for unaccompanied minors.

But then something went terribly wrong.

Instead of sending him to his uncle, Carlos Enrique Pascual, a landscape worker in Florida, authorities said the shelter released the teenager to traffickers who took him to central Ohio, held him captive in a roach-infested trailer and threatened to kill him if he tried to leave.

"Please, how can I get out of this?" Pascual's nephew begged him during a stolen moment with a telephone. "I'm hungry, and my heart is bursting with fear."

Pascual called police and, in December 2014, authorities found his nephew, then 17, and seven other boys living in cramped, dirty trailers about an hour outside of Columbus. Authorities said they were working at Trillium Farms, one of the country's largest egg producers, debeaking hens and cleaning cages nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week, for as little as $2 a day.

The boys were part of a surge of children flowing across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past four years, overwhelming federal officials responsible for their safekeeping, child advocates say. Since 2011, more than 125,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been stopped at the border, many placed in shelters funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has demanded a response from the Obama administration to whistleblower claims that thousands of those children have been released to sponsors with criminal records that include homicide, child molestation and human trafficking. Legal advocates for the children say many have wound up in abusive situations, where they have been forced to work to repay debts or living expenses. Some children simply stop showing up for immigration hearings and vanish.

"We have a large percentage of these kids that disappear, and I don't know what happens to them," said Jessica Ramos, a lawyer with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, an Ohio nonprofit group that represents children in immigration proceedings.