Editor’s note: In February, the New York Times published an investigation that revealed an extensive “shadow workforce” of migrant youth who work in U.S. factories that manufacture products from common household brands such as Cheerios and Fruit of the Loom. These minors, who often come to the United States alone, work grueling hours in dangerous conditions. Following the investigation, the Biden administration launched a task force led by the Department of Labor to investigate and crack down on companies that violate child labor laws, and state and federal legislatures across the country have launched similar inquiries and investigations.
While the national conversation has focused on labor violations and penalties, Reckon spoke to M,* who co-facilitates group therapy programs for recently arrived immigrant youth through La Puerta Abierta, a trauma-informed mental health services organization serving the Latin American immigrant community in Philadelphia, PA. They themself crossed the border as a child, and believe that a holistic approach that centers comprehensive care is needed in order to resolve the systemic problems that unaccompanied minors face in the United States.
This story was published as a collaboration between Reckon and palabra, a multimedia platform by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
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When I came to the U.S. I thought I was going to be like the American teenagers I had seen on TV. I crossed the border with my aunt. I was 11 years old and had come to be reunited with my mother, who I hadn’t seen since I was 6.
When you arrive in the U.S. after crossing the border, you feel like a well. When people see a well they just see the top of it, a small circle. They know that underneath it there is water, but they can’t see how deep it goes, or how much water is inside.
But it feels like the well is so deep that it runs to the end of the world, and you can’t tell a soul.
A systemic problem
I now co-facilitate therapeutic group sessions for unaccompanied minors who crossed the border as kids, just like I did a decade ago.
When these young people arrive in the United States, they often owe thousands of dollars to pay for their border crossing. They need to work long hours while going to school.
The recent crackdown on companies with child labor in their supply chains is a step forward. But beyond being protected as workers, we need to be protected as human beings.
Some kids work in factories. Others work in restaurants late into the night. They walk into our group sessions yawning, with sunken eyes. Many of them finish their work shifts at 2 a.m. and arrive at school at 7 a.m.
If they don’t pay off their debts, their families in their native countries are in real danger of being killed, or worse. The people who get you across the border drill this fear into you throughout the entire journey.
These problems are systemic, and the entire system needs change in order for them to truly be addressed.
What does holistic care for young people like me look like? Last year alone, 130,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States. We are attending U.S. high schools, washing dishes at local restaurants and figuring out how to plant our own roots in a new country. Most of us are unable to access lawyers and find ourselves in legal limbo as we go through the expensive process of seeking asylum, which often takes years. Many of us are from rural communities and speak indigenous languages.
All of us carry trauma.
My journey to the United States took a month and half. Some days we would walk up to ten miles. Other days we were on buses for hours. We didn’t rest at all, because at every turn we worried that someone would catch us. Imagine getting all the way to Mexico, only to be caught off guard for three seconds and be sent home, or worse.
Sometimes the smugglers would give kids medicine to keep us quiet. It was traumatizing. That same year, when they tried to give us vaccines at school, I had a panic attack, and no one understood why. And it’s not like I could tell them.
I was filled with triggers.
I still get scared when I hear people approaching me from behind. When people try to hug me my instant reflex is to put my fists up, or get angry.
At home I would explode. It was hard to build a relationship with my mom because I felt like she could never understand what I was going through.
I would lie a lot. I lied about where I was from, how I was raised, and how my parents got to the U.S. I became a whole different person to fit in. I forced myself to stop speaking Spanish in 7th grade, and I tried to change my appearance to look more “American.”
But continuing my existence with a smile felt impossible.
Confronting the monster in the darkness
By the middle of 7th grade I had fallen into a deep internal crisis and started to self harm.
When my teachers found out, they were concerned that I was going to commit suicide. I was mandated by the school to meet once a week with a counselor from La Puerta Abierta (LPA), an organization that provides pro-bono mental health services to the Latin American community in Philadelphia who cannot receive health insurance due to their legal status.
Eventually I participated in LPA’s therapeutic group program with other newly arrived immigrant youth, where I now work as a peer mentor.
At first I didn’t talk at all. I hated it. I thought that therapy was for crazy people and that it was a waste of time.
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But when I heard others talk about their experiences, it opened a window in me. Our stories were all similar. We were all kids, making a dangerous journey north with no idea what would happen next. Now that we had all arrived in the U.S., we were just trying to survive.
The group gave me the support I needed to start processing what had happened to me. It was scary work. It feels like there is a monster lurking in the darkness that you have been ignoring for as long as you can remember. But with the help of the group, at some point I started to feel like if I got attacked there were people who would have my back.
“We are not just victims”
What I want people to know is this: We are not just victims, and we are not just our labor. We are people who have lived through tremendously traumatizing events, but we are strong and deeply driven.
We are not only strong because we are hard workers. We are strong emotionally. I have seen youth talk about things that they have had to hide inside of them for their entire lives. It’s profoundly brave.
Imagine that you’ve been drowning for a long time in the middle of the ocean. And one day you see a light in the distance. Being in that ocean is terrifying. And seeing that light is also scary because you are so used to being in the dark. Swimming towards it takes work: To be vulnerable and to trust means that you are swimming against the current. But once you have the support you need to finally reach it, you can take the deepest breath of your life.
*M’s name has been changed to protect their identity due to a pending immigration process.