The Biden administration this week announced a task force and extra measures to curb child labor in response to a significant increase in the illegal employment of migrant children in the United States and a recent New York Times investigation of migrant child labor.
The Labor Department reported on Monday a 70% increase in child labor violations since 2018, and it said that nearly 835 companies violated child labor laws in fiscal 2022.
“Every child in this country, regardless of their circumstance, deserves protection and care as we would expect for our own child,” Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, said in a statement to the press.
The number of migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border without parents has steadily grown in recent years. In fiscal 2020, 33,239 unaccompanied children were processed at the border. In 2021, that number jumped to 146,925, followed by 152,057 migrant children in 2022 and 46,825 so far in fiscal 2023.
They are largely from Central America and are first placed in U.S. custody.
“The government then releases them into the custody of a sponsor - so in some cases, it's a family member; in some cases, it's a family friend - while these kids are going through their immigration court proceedings. And what they [reporters] found was many of these kids are ending up in exploitative labor situations,” said Jennifer Podkul, vice president for policy and advocacy at Kids in Need of Defense.
Investigations by the Times and Reuters found children as young as 12 working shifts of more than 10 hours in dangerous conditions across the United States in multiple industries, including food processing plants, farms and slaughterhouses. Many of them were not enrolled in school.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said, “Everyone has a responsibility here. This is not a 19th-century problem - this is a today problem. We need Congress to come to the table, we need states to come to the table. This is a problem that will take all of us to stop.”
Migrant advocates say they have been urging the government to implement more protective measures to make sure migrant children are safe once they are released from U.S. government custody.
“There were some really tragic stories about very dangerous working conditions and wholly inappropriate working conditions for children,” Podkul said.
Following the Times investigation, Biden officials announced new measures, including efforts nationwide to use “all available enforcement tools, including penalties, injunctions, stopping the movement of goods made with child labor, and criminal referrals where warranted.
“And today, the Department of Labor and HHS announced that they will create a new interagency task force to combat child exploitation. They will also increase scrutiny of companies that do business with employers who violate child labor laws,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday.
Chiara Galli, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and a migration and asylum scholar with a focus on children, said unaccompanied minors often come from very low-income backgrounds, and they usually have relatives relying on them to send money back home. Those factors help make them a target for exploitative situations as work becomes normalized in their lives.
Children from poor backgrounds from Central American countries more often than not had to drop out of school to work at an early age, Galli said.
“They struggle in many realms. They struggle in school because they've had interrupted schooling and it's very hard to catch up. … Schools aren't super well-equipped to help kids who maybe had to drop out two [or] three years before migration because they had to help their families and work,” she said.
Since the Times report, U.S. government officials have said they are investigating the employment of children at various companies, including Hearthside Food Solutions, one of the companies cited in the report.
A spokesperson from Hearthside wrote in an email to VOA that the company would work with the Department of Labor in its investigation and said it was appalled by the migrant child labor taking place at one of its locations.
“Our hearts break for the young people whose stories are documented in the [Times] article,” according to a statement from Hearthside.
The penalty in the U.S. for a child labor violation is $15,138 per child, which some U.S. officials and migrant children advocates say is not high enough.
“Everyone from employers to local law enforcement and civic leaders must do their part to protect children,” Becerra said.