The New York Times recently published an expose highlighting the exploitation of migrant children working in factories, slaughterhouses, construction sites, and agriculture throughout the United States. Migrant children are coming to the U.S. in record numbers – in the last two years alone, more than 250,000 children have entered the United States by themselves.
These children are coming to the U.S. in search of a better life, fleeing poverty, political unrest, and unsafe situations. Unaccompanied children have been crossing the Southern border for decades. In 2008, the U.S. began a program to allow non-Mexican minors to live with sponsors while they go through the lengthy process of immigration proceedings.
Just 30% of children’s sponsors are their parents. The vast majority are being released into the care of distant relatives they have never met, or in many cases, complete strangers. Sponsors are supposed to be vetted by the Department of Health and Human Services, but the vetting process has many gaps that can put children into unsafe and exploitative situations.
While awaiting release into the care of a sponsor, migrant children stay in shelters. However, the increase in unaccompanied children led to the shelters becoming overcrowded and H.H.S. began housing children in jail-like facilities run by the Customs and Border Protection, and later, in tent cities.
The Biden Administration put pressure on the shelter system to move children out of these facilities quickly and into the care of sponsors. Many agencies began skipping over certain protections in order to place children in the care of sponsors more quickly, including skipping background checks and reviews of files.
Unlike the foster system where all children are assigned case workers for the duration of their time in foster care, just one third of migrant children have case managers through the Department of Health and Human Services, and those that do have case managers have them for just 4 months. Tens of thousands of migrant children are released into the care of sponsors with nothing but a phone number for a national hotline. From there, there is no formal follow-up from any federal or local agencies to ensure the children are safe and cared for.
“While H.H.S. checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by The Times showed that over the last two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with a third of migrant children.”
In Texas, a case worker said she “had encountered a man who had been targeting poor families in Guatemala, promising to help them get rich if they sent their children across the border. He had sponsored 13 children.”
This is human trafficking, and the U.S. Government is doing nothing to stop it.
Many sponsors use this as an opportunity to profit off of migrant children – charging them for rent, food, clothing, and fees to file their immigration paperwork. Children are often left with no choice but to work – whether to pay off their debts to sponsors, or try to provide for their families back home.
The New York Times expose found migrant children working in both under-the-table operations, as well as in global corporations:
“In Los Angeles, children stitch ‘Made in America’ tags into J. Crew shirts. They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. As recently as the fall, middle-schoolers made Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors.
The growth of migrant child labor in the United States over the past several years is a result of a chain of willful ignorance. Companies ignore the young faces in their back rooms and on their factory floors. Schools often decline to report apparent labor violations, believing it will hurt children more than help. And H.H.S. behaves as if the migrant children who melt unseen into the country are doing just fine.
The Times spoke with more than 100 migrant child workers in 20 states who described jobs that were grinding them into exhaustion, and fears that they had become trapped in circumstances they never could have imagined. The Times examination also drew on court and inspection records and interviews with hundreds of lawyers, social workers, educators and law enforcement officials.
In town after town, children scrub dishes late at night. They run milking machines in Vermont and deliver meals in New York City. They harvest coffee and build lava rock walls around vacation homes in Hawaii. Girls as young as 13 wash hotel sheets in Virginia.”
The factories and plants where these immigrant minors are working, are fraught with safety concerns. Heavy machinery, conveyer belts, and other unsafe working conditions put these children at risk. Adolescents are twice as likely as children to be seriously injured at work. The Labor Department tracks the deaths of foreign-born child workers, but as of 2017, no longer makes those reports public. The Times was able to uncover a dozen cases of young migrant workers killed since 2017 including a 14-year-old food delivery worker who was hit by a car on his bike while at a Brooklyn intersection; a 16-year-old who was crushed under a 35-ton tractor-scraper outside Atlanta; and a 15-year-old who fell 50 feet from a roof in Alabama where he was laying down roofing shingles.
“In 2021, Karla Campbell, a Nashville labor lawyer, helped a woman figure out how to transport the body of her 14-year-old grandson, who had been killed on a landscaping job, back to his village in Guatemala. It was the second child labor death she had handled that year.”
As we continue to uncover more of this story, our hearts are broken at the many layers of which the U.S. immigration system has failed migrant children. One can feel helpless, wondering what one individual can do to help. It starts by spreading awareness – keeping yourself informed of the issues plaguing migrant communities, and sharing that information within your own network of influence. Change cannot come if people aren’t aware of the problem to begin with. Next, we must continue to place pressure on the U.S. Government to implement comprehensive immigration reform that places a focus on the safety and security of migrant children.
The Biden Administration announced as of Monday, February 27th, that they are aware of the issue and have created a task force to address the exploitation of migrant children. The H.H.S. and Department of Labor have promised stronger follow-up for children who are moved from shelters to live with sponsors and says the agency will now require staff to follow-up with children who call the National Call Center to report safety concerns.
What is KIAC doing to help? Our immigration legal services team continues to take on SIJS matters, which stands for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. SIJS is an immigration status available to children under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents. SIJS is a way for immigrants under twenty-one to apply for and obtain legal permanent residence in the United States.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is unique among immigration matters in that the application process requires the involvement of a state “juvenile court.” Whereas applicants for other immigration remedies proceed solely before federal immigration authorities, a child seeking SIJS must first ask the appropriate state court judge in the state where the child is living to make certain findings. This requires the involvement of a lawyer, as this step cannot be completed by a DOJ Accredited Representative (AR).
Once the state’s juvenile court has made the determination that the child is eligble for SIJS, then the application can be filed with USCIS. This step can be completed by an AR.
In 2022, KIAC’s legal team took on 11 of such matters, and our goal for 2023 is to prioritize undertaking more of these cases. Just in the past week, KIAC has accepted 4 new SIJS cases. As we continue to assume more SIJS matters, this two-step process will mean more demand for volunteer lawyers. You can support KIAC’s work by donating on our website. If you are a lawyer and are interested in volunteering with KIAC’s legal team, learn more on our volunteer page.
You can also learn more about this issue through these links:
Resource: Data obtained from New York Times, Electronic Publication of February 25, 2023.