Activists responding to an ongoing child migrant labor scandal say that without systematic change children will likely continue to be exploited. Already, the U.S. Department of Food and Labor and media reports have found that more than 100 children were being employed for hazardous work this year alone.
In February, the federal government reported that one of the country’s biggest food safety sanitation services providers had employed 13- to 17-year-old children for dangerous jobs, which included working overnight shifts at 13 meat processing plants across eight states.
The company, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI), paid a $1.5 million fine as a result, or approximately $15,138 for each underaged employee. Other companies have faced similar consequences.
In 2014, Chipotle paid a $1.4 million fine for overworking teenagers on school nights.
In conjunction, media reports from that time found that many children employed across the country were migrants who had been forced into jobs out of desperation in order to pay off debt incurred for being smuggled into the U.S., rent and living expenses.
Some of the children were as young as 12.
“These are issues that we have seen for a long time,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, a law firm that defends migrants.
“We don’t have an immigration system, even for children who come to us without their parents, even children who don’t have anyone to care for them that focuses on child welfare,” she said.
“We have so many policies and policies coming in place at the border right now that really contribute to creating an environment that puts kids at great risk.”
The New York Times recently reported that the Biden Administration had been considering reimplementing a policy that would detain migrant families that illegally cross the border.
The approach became well-known during President Donald Trump’s time in office, when his administration expanded the policy.
Activists vehemently oppose the reinstating of family detention, which could exacerbate the struggles of child migrants.
Toczylowski said that instead of detaining children, the federal government should look to provide support for sponsors, adults who legally opt to support a child physically and mentally while they undergo the immigration process, either with monetary support or links to social services for families in their local area.
An investigation in The New York Times found that sponsors had been pressuring children to work to pay them back for expenses.
“There needs to be better connection from government custody, to the community, to community-based resources,” Toczylowski added.
Advocates fear that the government will continue to fine companies without directly addressing the issues that vulnerable children are facing, which could leave them in search of other dangerous jobs, including work on construction sites or in sawmills.
And fines likely won’t deter large companies like PSSI, which is owned by Blackstone and boasts an annual revenue of more than $2.7 billion, from complying with policies intended to protect children.
Jennifer Podkul, vice president of policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that provides legal services to migrant children, said that kids in the non-profit’s care would mostly benefit from multiple services, instead of the government relying on fines to remedy the problem.
“It’s up to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to make sure that they’re giving the follow up services that kids need.
“It’s up to the U.S. Department of Education to make sure that schools are prepared for newcomer students and can help them with programs that will let them balance work and school,” she said, adding that more services could potentially end a cycle of children being fired from companies with violations and seeking inappropriate work elsewhere.
In response to the scandal, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would launch a task force to be led by the Department of Food and Labor to combat child labor exploitation with the goal of providing education and training in “relevant communities,” according to a press release.
But Podkul is unsure about the systemic change the move is going to make.
“We have to wait and see how effective that really is,” she said.
Toczylowski recalled a conversation with a detained child she met at the Long Beach Convention Center in California, who was sobbing because they were stressed about not being able to get out of the building to work and support their family.
She suspected the child to be around 11 or 12.
“It’s kind of unfathomable to imagine,” Toczylowski said. “You can only imagine the desperation of parents who felt no other choice but to sacrifice their child into a situation like that.”
A program that Toczylowski thinks works well is the Central American Minors Refugee and Parole Program, which allows children who want to reunite with family members to do so safely from their home countries.
Children in the program receive authorization to travel prior to arriving in the U.S. However, there are families from that part of the world that feel forced to send their children northward fast, under the cover of darkness, in order to ensure their survival, Toczylowski said.
“If we had more mechanisms that allow children to seek safety without having to take these incredible risks, I think we would see less situations where children are in these situations that lead to exploitation.”