FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] “We're incentivizing the traffickers … The United States government is paying for the flights and the bus tickets to deliver these children to people who view children as assets,” says Health and Human Services (HHS) whistleblower Tara Rodas.
A federal employee for two decades, including 17 years in the inspector general community, she was among a number of people who answered a call from the Biden administration to help with the crisis at the border and a surge in unaccompanied minors.
“Everybody just believed we were reuniting children with families … I thought I would be able to help, you know—be that smiling, welcoming face to the children when they came. I just had no idea that the children didn't know who they were going to,” Rodas says.
Large numbers of unaccompanied minors are being sent by HHS to sponsors that are not being properly vetted, Rodas says. In some cases, kids are being released to apartment buildings where dozens of other children have also been released. In other cases, there are sponsors using multiple addresses to sponsor children, she says. And in some cases, sponsors are submitting fake documentation—that no one is checking.
Jan Jekielek: Tara Rodas, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Tara Rodas: Jan, thank you so much for having me on to talk about government-sponsored, taxpayer-funded child trafficking. I appreciate it.
Mr. Jekielek: When you say those words, they are really hard to comprehend. I watched your testimony in Congress a couple of months ago, and it blew my mind. How did you come to discover what you just spoke about?
Ms. Rodas: I'm a federal employee. I've been a federal employee for more than 20 years, and 17 of those years have been in the inspector general community. An IG [Inspector General], for those people who know, combats fraud, waste and abuse in government programs. Today, I'm talking to you as an average citizen who witnessed trafficking through a detail in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS]. I volunteered to help.
You may recall that the Biden administration at the beginning of 2021 made a call to all federal employees to come help with the crisis at the border. Specifically, they needed federal employees who were vetted to work with the children and place those children with sponsors here in the United States. I thought, "Wow, what an incredible service I could do by helping reunite children with their families." And that's what I did.
Mr. Jekielek: What was your work before this?
Ms. Rodas: I'm a trainer. I train people within the inspector general community on how to do their jobs better, so that we can be the best at combating fraud, waste, and abuse.
Mr. Jekielek: That's fascinating. Of course, I'm familiar with your story as well. You are very good at this, having taught it and getting into the nitty-gritty and seeing things that don't quite fit.
Ms. Rodas: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: These things might tell a story that you need to uncover.
Ms. Rodas: Right. Most people know there's fraud, waste and abuse in the government. Most people know that. But when you're actually working in a particular program, sometimes you might not realize what the fraud in that program might lead to, or what the waste or abuse in that program could eventually lead to down the line. Everybody just believed we were reuniting children with families, and that is a great mission.
What better mission? That's why I volunteered to do that. With my husband being from El Salvador, and being a Spanish speaker, I thought I would be that smiling, welcoming face for the children when they came. I just had no idea that the children didn't know who they were going to.
Mr. Jekielek: We know there's a statistic out there right now that 85,000 children are unaccounted for. When did you first realize there was something amiss?
Ms. Rodas: It only took a couple of weeks working in case management, actually looking at the cases, seeing the faces of the children, and then seeing the children crying. I saw the case managers distressed and saying, "I don't understand. It seems like the child doesn't know the person they're going to." I remember thinking, "What do you mean the child doesn't know the person they're going to?"
That's when we, as the federal team, started looking into the contract case manager's work, and we were double checking what was happening. I said, "I want to see the ID of the person." I wanted to match this paperwork of where we're sending the child. What was happening? Then we had case managers with stress. We had a case manager who had to be hospitalized for stress because she felt so strongly that her child was being trafficked.
This is when I first realized that something was wrong. How could this be family reunification if the children didn't know who they were going to? Honestly, if I had not seen this with my own eyes, I simply could not have believed it. I could not believe that the U.S. government was taking a child from the border, and then taking this child into the care of the government.
We have the child, and they're safe with us. Then within 10 to 14 days we send them on buses and planes to people who are unvetted, to homes that have not been seen, and to sponsors who have not been seen. It doesn't pass the common sense test for me.
Mr. Jekielek: How prevalent is this, because some children are actually being reunited with families, right? This is such a fraught topic. Even as we're talking about it, I find it difficult to understand the term trafficking. What does that actually mean? Are you saying they are willfully wanting people to be used? Or are you saying that they end up that way and the government knows about it? What do you actually mean?
Ms. Rodas: Yes, there's a big difference. I didn't know this before going on this mission, but there is a big difference between smuggling and trafficking. They are two different things. Smuggling simply means moving the child from one location to the other. You're moving the child. Trafficking involves three things; force, fraud or coercion. There has to be this luring element. There has to be deception, and there has to be a reason.
That would mean they're using this deception for a purpose. That purpose could be labor trafficking. It could be sex trafficking. It could be organ harvesting. It could be that they're just trying to make money off of the children. It could be them being in debt bondage and having to pay their debts back. There's all sorts of reasons, but trafficking means that force, fraud or coercion was used for a purpose like labor, sex, or other unspeakable things.
Mr. Jekielek: Let me get back to that question. Do you have a sense of the prevalence of children being united with people who they simply don't know. Second, does that always happen in a fraudulent way?
Ms. Rodas: I can talk about the 8,314 cases that went through the Pomona Fairplex in Los Angeles County. I can also point to other stories that have been done and senate reports and congressional testimony. Right now, anybody could go to the HHS website and they can see the percentage of children that get a category three sponsor, meaning they are completely unknown to the child and unrelated. It's an unrelated sponsor.
But that data alone doesn't tell the full story, because on our site, we witnessed many cases of people submitting fraudulent documentation in an attempt to sponsor children. If you can imagine, we have a child that we're about to send to someone based on photographs of birth certificates that have been sent to us. No one sees the sponsor, and no one sees the home of the sponsor. If the sponsor claims, "This is my sister," then that's how we treat the case.
Mr. Jekielek: There is really no way for HHS to keep the children because the volume that's coming across is so huge, correct? That's the reason they have so much pressure to keep them moving.
Ms. Rodas: Yes, exactly. Jan, hundreds of thousands of children have come across the border into the care of HHS—hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands have been sent out to sponsors, some of whom we know are criminals. They are traffickers. They are members of transnational criminal organizations involved in sex trafficking. Once they're gone, they're gone.
HHS has no requirement to follow up with these people. Because they're not here legally either, how can they be tracked? Who's checking their backgrounds? No one. Then you have the whistleblower from DHS saying, "These people are on the TOC watch list," meaning the transnational organized crime watch list. No one is going after them. It's very concerning, and that's why I blew the whistle on HHS.
Mr. Jekielek: Have you met others who have found the same thing at other field sites?
Ms. Rodas: The one good thing is, as a result of coming forward with Project Veritas and James O'Keefe, people saw that video and did contact me. I do know there are people who have come forward. People have talked to prosecutors in various states. It has sparked some action. But these people are afraid to come forward and put their face on camera for fear of retaliation from their agency that they were detailed from.
Let's just say you were working for the DOJ. You don't want to come forward now, because the DOJ might fire you for telling the truth. There are a lot of people who don't want to have their faces shown. But they are still coming forward and talking with prosecutors and turning over data and information that we hope will eventually prosecute criminals, and reform this unaccompanied children program. It must be changed.
Mr. Jekielek: You've talked about these different fraud schemes. You said there are two methods that are used. Please give me an example of something that you actually saw in action.
Ms. Rodas: We had a trafficker in Austin, Texas. This gentleman, a citizen of Guatemala, actually owns a coffee farm in Guatemala. He has children working on his coffee farm in Guatemala. He's paying those children $2.50 a day to work on his coffee farm in Guatemala. He says, "You're special. I'm going to pay you $6 an hour when you come to the United States. If you come to the United States, I'll give you a place to live, and you're going to make $6 an hour."
These children, thinking about $2.50 cents a day to $6 an hour, then say, “I'm going to be rich. I'm going to be able to take care of my family. I'm going to be able to look after my brothers and sisters.” These children take this journey knowing they have a debt to pay. We found out at our site that we had one of these, and that the Pecos site in Texas had three others. I said, "We need to interview all of these children separately. We can't have them cross-contaminate the information. We have to be certain what they're saying is their own true story." I talked with all the case managers, and they all interviewed the children again.
They all told the same story. "I was promised $6 an hour to come here. I was working for $2.50 cents a day." The case manager said that all the children told the same story. One case manager said, "Tara, I was so sad thinking that these children were going to be put to work." I said to the child who I was responsible for, "What happens if you get to the United States and you meet a girl and you want to get married?"
She said that the little boy looked at her and said, "Oh, no, we cannot leave the sponsor." This is a real case. These are real children going into these circumstances. The United States government cannot be complicit in this activity.
Mr. Jekielek: This reality has been around for a while, and it's just that the scale of it has changed. Do I understand that right?
Ms. Rodas: Yes. If we go back to 2014, they were trafficking children through the program then. Under the Obama administration, in a very high-level case in Marion, Ohio, they found boys who were living in these squalor conditions in a trailer, and they were being threatened. They had guns pointed at them, and were told that their parents would be killed.
The traffickers told them this, and they were working on this egg farm in Marion, Ohio. These people were caught, arrested and charged, but it all took time. In 2016, Senator Portman had a Senate hearing and he explained exactly how all of this was happening. That exposé is called Trafficked in America, and anybody can see it for free on YouTube.
Mr. Jekielek: But for some reason, steps weren't taken to deal with the incentive structures. What happened? This was Senator Portman. He was running the subcommittee on investigations at the time. Presumably there should have been some action after the investigation reveals all this. Do you know what happened then?
Ms. Rodas: They were putting in the background checks of household members, but then when this administration took over, they removed all those policies. They changed the policies. They put in field guidance to no longer require background checks on household members. We saw cases where you had more than one person living at an address, and each of those people were sponsoring children. That just doesn't make sense.
Mr. Jekielek: That sounds like a big red flag to me.
Ms. Rodas: Yes, it should be a big red flag. When a child is going to a person that they don't know, that should be a red flag. When a sponsor is sponsoring children at two different addresses, that should be a red flag. If you have 40 children that have all been released to one apartment complex, that should be a red flag. In Austin, Texas, we found a block that had four apartment buildings where over 100 children had been released.
Mr. Jekielek: Although conceivably, this could just be a community of migrants or a community of illegal immigrants.
Ms. Rodas: It's possible, but not probable. In this particular instance, we had a person in one apartment building who was sponsoring a child, and in another apartment sponsoring a different child. If somebody is sponsoring at two different addresses, that's fraud.
Mr. Jekielek: Obviously.
Ms. Rodas: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: What has been the reaction to you going public with these disclosures?
Ms. Rodas: Some people believe it's a conspiracy theory. They think there's no such thing as child trafficking, and that immigrant children are not being trafficked. I'm unclear as to why somebody would think that. Then there are people who obviously care deeply about the children, not just here, but also in their home country. They are trying to determine, "What can we do now?"
Fortunately, there are people who are saying, "What can we do to rescue the children? What can we do to find out who's involved in all of this and what laws we need to change?" It really runs the spectrum. Jan, and it's a hard subject to look into. At times, I wish I never knew this happened. But if I had to do it all over again in order to stand up for the children, I would. I wish I never knew these things. I wish I never knew that somebody could do these horrible things to a small child.
One of my case managers came to me in tears and said, "Tara, I just don't understand how somebody could do this to children." I said, "What happened?" I try to help the people around me, as I myself was in crisis. She said, "Tara, the little boy whose case I worked on today, he's only eight-years-old. He was prostituted the entire way across Mexico. He's in diapers now because he can't control his bowels." This is the level of evil that is happening.
This is what happens to them on the journey. What's going to happen to them here? This is not the American dream. Again, it's a very difficult thing to accept that there are people who view children as assets. They're trying to accumulate assets to earn residual income off of the children. It's unthinkable, but this is how they think. It's about making money. They don't care about these children.
Mr. Jekielek: What are the immediate things that could be done to remedy this?
Ms. Rodas: The first thing is to turn the data over to the inspector general community. There are data analysts in the inspector general community who could detect the hotspots just like that. They could crosscheck the data with criminal records. They could quickly see who the bad actors were. They could immediately rescue children.
They could also prosecute criminals. They would be able to see the high-level criminal actors on the transnational organized crime watch list who are attempting to get children. We need to go get them now. We can't have these people running operations inside the United States. That's absolutely unacceptable. That's an immediate quick fix.
They could stop the release of children and change the rules. They could no longer release children without background checks. That would make sense. Why are they not DNA testing? There are no children in the United States today, where if a child was found on their own, we would just give the child to anyone. No, we would want to make sure what is the relationship with the child? How do you know them? We would want to make sure that they can care for their needs. These are two simple things that could be done. Stop and change the rules, and then turn the data over to the inspector general community. They could find children and prosecute criminals quickly.
Mr. Jekielek: Here is a bit of a light thought as we're discussing. Have you ever seen the film The Incredibles?
Ms. Rodas: I did a long time ago, yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Remember Mr. Incredible, he's given this bureaucratic job at an insurance company. But he's Mr. Incredible, and he can't just do his usual job. He's basically educating all the people that are coming in. He's the case manager to help you get your claims processed properly, because the system is set up to prevent that from happening.
Ms. Rodas: Wow.
Mr. Jekielek: When I'm talking to you, I'm remembering these scenes. Of course, his manager's really unhappy with him for doing that, and then humor ensues. But in all seriousness, it feels like a blessing or providence or serendipity, that you ended up in this situation, because you were able to help a whole bunch of people try to make a difference in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Ms. Rodas: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Has anyone said this to you?
Ms. Rodas: Some people have said, "Wow, you get on stage with other whistleblowers and everybody wants to say you're a hero." I don't see myself like that. I see myself as a person who is looking at the very desperate situation of a child and saying, "I'm going to be the person to stand in the gap." To me, that just seems like what any reasonable person would want to do. If you've looked into the little face of a child, and if you've heard a child screaming for their parent, you just want to help. I would think anybody would want to do this.
Mr. Jekielek: Tara Rodas, it's such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you.
Ms. Rodas: Jan, thank you so much for the privilege of being able to tell the story, and thank you for highlighting what we now know is government-sponsored, taxpayer-funded child trafficking.
Mr. Jekielek: We reached out to Health and Human Services. Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to our request for comment. Thank you all for joining Tara Rodas and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I'm your host, Jan Jekielek.
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