Joe Biden has long touted his approach to the U.S. southern border as more humane than Donald Trump’s. And by 2020, nothing had become more emblematic of the Trump administration’s perceived heartlessness on the issue than migrant “kids in cages” at Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) detention facilities. (Never mind for now that the cages were chain-link partitions first built and used by the Obama administration.) Candidate Biden told lawmakers that, if elected, he wouldn’t detain children at the border. And when Biden became president, he did in fact move swiftly to empty these centers of detained children.

The results are a Dickensian nightmare.

“Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country,” writes the New York Times’ Hannah Dreier in a piece of deep-dive journalism that should earn her a second Pulitzer Prize. “This shadow work force extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century,” she writes. “Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.”

There’s the 13-year-old boy who reflects on his six-day workweek of 12-hour shifts at an egg farm in Michigan. “I’d like to go to school,” he says. “But then how would I pay rent?” There’s another 13-year-old boy who came to the U.S. with his seven-year-old brother and began making car parts for Ford on the overnight shift. There’s the ninth-grade girl whose nightshifts at a commercial laundry landed her in the hospital twice before she dropped out of school.

The Times spoke to more than a hundred of these kids, and what emerges is a massive, thriving trade in child labor. In the United States. In the 21st century. How massive? In the past two years, more than 250,000 unaccompanied minors have entered the country, and welfare caseworkers say that about two thirds of them now work full-time. Forget the depredations of “late capitalism.” This is a return to the pre-child-labor-law days of the early industrial revolution. And it’s the government, not the private sector, that made it possible.

How did this happen? Here’s how: “As more and more children have arrived, the Biden White House has ramped up demands on staffers to move the children quickly out of shelters and release them to adults,” Dreier writes. “Caseworkers say they rush through vetting sponsors.” Under Biden, HHS “began paring back protections that had been in place for years, including some background checks and reviews of children’s files, according to memos reviewed by the Times and interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees.”

The released children are now prey for “sponsors” who are in fact smugglers. They connect with the children, sometimes on social media, promise to take care of them in the U.S., and then, once they arrive, they put them to work to pay off the supposed costs of sponsoring them.

Is this better than having these children stay longer in safe, if stark, facilities where they’re clothed and fed? If so, how? What happened to Biden’s campaign pledge to “codify protections to safeguard [migrant] children to make sure their treatment is consistent with their best interest” and “move migrants into safe environments as quickly as possible”?

This is a national disgrace, a multi-system failure of vast proportions. But it’s what happens when optics and partisan opportunism subsumes policymaking. Trump-era histrionics about the border and “kids in cages” never settled into honest or serious discussion. It was all just another aspect of the Left’s consuming obsession with Trump. In the effort to undo everything Trump did, Biden unleashed a cascade of unintended consequences so upsetting that they’re hard to read about.

Biden likes to be bold when standing up to imaginary foes. In 2021, he directed some of his toughest talk at U.S. Border Patrol agents who were falsely accused of whipping Haitian migrants. “It’s outrageous. I promise you those people will pay,” Biden said. “There will be consequences.” While Biden was posturing over a viral photograph, managers at HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement sent a memo to agency heads saying that the office was “one that rewards individuals for making quick releases, and not one that rewards individuals for preventing unsafe releases.” And nothing changed. Last year, Secretary of Health and Human services Xavier Becerra compared the child-relocation process to an assembly line and bragged about telling his staff to “step it up.” So who will pay this time, when the outrage is justified and the offense was directed by the president himself?

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