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April 26, 2024

Logan Pineda

Missing and Exploited for Child Labor: Central American Migrant Children



The labor shortage in the U.S. has generated chaos within certain industries; to address this gap, companies can and often do hire unauthorized workers as a means of maintaining high production and low-cost labor. However, despite the contracting of undocumented workers being criminalized since President Reagan’s “Immigration Reform and Control Act” in 1986, construction companies, automobile manufacturers, and particularly meatpacking facilities continuously hire unauthorized Latino migrant child workers who are exploited for profits. Not only have these companies failed to follow labor laws, government agencies such as the Department of Human Health Services (DHHS), the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and the Department of Labor (DOL) have been ineffective in protecting migrant children. A slew of investigative reports from The New York Times and government agencies, as well as federal lawsuits, have found numerous migrant children working in dangerous jobs; violating both the letter of the law and, arguably, a basic sense of ethics and morality. 

Congressional approval increasing the budget for the federal agencies (DHHS, ORR, DOL) handling the cases of migrant children must be increased to provide additional staffing and resources to track unlawful hiring violations. Additional investing into particular departments, such as the worker protection agencies under the DOL, to pursue investigations would expose more unlawful hiring at meatpacking facilities that are continuously exploiting migrant children.  Legislative reform and amendments to prior worker’s rights legislation imposing harsher penalties on meatpacking facilities would address the need for a more effective deterrence, imposing more severe consequences from the current minimal monetary fines. Lastly, intensive Congressional oversight through hearings would enhance insight into management and operations of the agencies responsible for maintaining the location and safety of migrant children, from sponsorship to work violations. 

ORR Sponsorship and Missing Children

While the effects of COVID-19 have impacted countries globally, less developed countries are still dealing with the economic repercussions, such as high unemployment and mass inflation in basic needs. According to the UN World Food Programme, “the number of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans affected by moderate or severe food insecurity nearly quadrupled from 4.8 million in 2019 to 17.3 million by Fall 2020.” This has led to millions of Central American children fleeing to the US in order to send money back home. However, the country with an overwhelming number of migrant children is Guatemala, which accounts for 42% of migrant children in 2023, compared to 28% coming from Honduras and 9% from El Salvador.

Source: Los Angeles Times

When unaccompanied children reach the border and are apprehended by Border Patrol agents, they are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) which provides shelter and temporary accommodations while they await sponsorship. The average waiting period for unaccompanied children in 2023 was 27 days before being released to a sponsor. There are four categories of sponsors under the ORR policies, with Category 1 holding the most preference. Category 1 includes “Parents and Legal Guardians,”; Category 2A includes “an immediate relative such as a brother or grandparent, or a close relative such as an aunt or a first cousin who previously served as the unaccompanied child’s primary caregiver.” Category 2B is reserved for “an immediate relative such as an aunt or a first cousin who was not previously the unaccompanied child’s primary caregiver,” and lastly, Category 3 is for “distant relatives and unrelated adults.”

Sponsors first apply for the unaccompanied child’s release after they are identified as a potential sponsor. This is then assessed by a case manager who analyzes the address information, relationship to the child, risk factors, and identity documents. Then, the case manager verifies the potential sponsor through an Internet criminal background check, sex offender registry, public records, and they may request an FBI criminal history check and a potential home study. After the verification process, ORR and the individuals assigned to an unaccompanied minor’s case conduct “Safety and Well Being Follow Up Calls,” which are “between 30 and 37 days after a child’s release from care and note the outcome of the call in the child’s case file.” While the process may seem thorough with sufficient checks and verifications, there are serious concerns over the lack of assurances that all verifications and background checks are completed in their entirety.

According to a DHHS report from February on sponsor screening safety, “19 percent of children who were released to sponsors with pending FBI fingerprint or state child abuse and neglect registry checks” were never updated. Therefore, case managers requested that one of

these more rigorous background checks be completed, and while they may have been initiated, ORR released the children to potentially dangerous or unsuitable sponsors. DHHS found one case of a 15-year-old child who was released to a sponsor and went missing in the middle of the night. While the sponsor contacted the local police department and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “no notes or flags about this outcome were added to this sponsor’s record, and he went on to sponsor two additional children following the incident.”

This incident is just one of many. In Culpeper, Virginia, about 353 unaccompanied children have arrived in this rural town since 2017 as a result of ORR’s sponsor system. Over the past seven years, “35 mostly Guatemalan children” have disappeared and gone missing. Collectively, ORR has “handled 2,724 reports in 2022 – six times more than the number in 2020” of missing children fleeing from their sponsors, and over 6,000 calls of missing unaccompanied children reached the ORR National Call Center between 2018 and 2023. The reasons for children fleeing from their sponsors vary. Some may find the home or sponsor unsafe, despite the heavy vetting from ORR. In other instances, issues and tension between the sponsor and the unaccompanied child may cause the minor to flee toward a friend, relative, or other known individual. 

However, what appears to be a common phenomenon is minors fleeing to work rather than attending school, due to the pressures of sending money back home. There is a vast majority of unaccompanied minors who live comfortably with their sponsors, yet they still choose to work.  Research on migrant child labor by the New York Times in February of 2023 stated that, “In interviews with more than 60 caseworkers, most independently estimated that about two-thirds of all unaccompanied migrant children ended up working full time.” However, the jobs that provide quick and easy revenue are dangerous not only for migrant children, but for adults as well. 

The Exploitation of Migrant Children

In 2023, the Department of Labor found 955 cases of child labor violations, an increase of 120 cases from the previous year and 208 more cases from 2021. The number of minors involved grew to 5,792 in 2023. Child labor surges have recently been receiving more media attention, especially in meatpacking facilities and slaughterhouses, where child migrant workers are becoming increasingly apparent in the workforce. 

A New York Times article by Hannah Dreier received mass attention in September of last year, when she reported the story of Marcos Cux, a fourteen-year-old who lost his forearm while cleaning a conductor belt. According to the article, the machine completely tore his limb at a Perdue Farms plant in Parksley, Virginia. Dreier reported that Cux was able to obtain fake identification that provided an alternative name and increased his age to be eligible for work through “the help of a middle-school classmate who already worked at the plant.” Dreier then mentions that children made “as much as a third of the overnight cleaning crew at the Perdue plant.” Cux is not the only one; in February of 2023, the Department of Labor released information on a federal investigation of Packers Sanitation Services Inc. (PSSI) which concluded that at least “102 children from 13 to 17” were working “overnight shifts at 13 meat processing facilities in eight states.” Three plants, each in a different state (Kansas, Minnesota, and Nebraska), employed more than 20 minors at the facility. While the number of migrant children affected is unknown, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department are investigating the lawsuit from the Department of Labor to assess “whether a human smuggling scheme brought migrant children to work in multiple slaughterhouses for multiple companies across multiple states.” In October of 2023, federal agents cracked down on a plant owned by Gerber’s Poultry in Kidron, Ohio where 24 children, most of whom were Guatemalan migrants, were working in sanitation and meat processing. 

In a federal investigation into Fayette Janitorial Service LLC, the Wage and Hour Division under the Department of Labor inspected the STF Plant in Sioux City, Iowa in October of 2023. There, some of the workers carried “pink and purple sparkly backpacks” and the younger employees “noticeably hid their faces.” Sanitation requires extensive effort to hose down machinery, hand-clean surfaces, and powerwash the floors that are filled with animal remnants and blood. However, the most danger lies in “working from elevated surfaces, on skyjacks, electrical scissor lifts, and ladders… and placing their hands inside machinery to check for animal parts.” The machines that are potentially cleaned and sanitized with a child’s hands are “head Splitters (splits the hog’s head for removal of the brain and pituitary), Jaw Pullers (unhinges the jawbone); and Belly Openers (cuts through the hog’s breast bones).” Some machines have bandsaws or blades hidden with horsepower motors. These machines can cut, mangle, tear, break, mutilate, or injure hands or arms during cleaning. No deaths occurred at the STF Plant in Iowa, but in Hattiesburg, Missouri––three months prior to the investigation into STF––16-year-old Guatemalan child migrant, Duvan Robert Tomas Perez, died due to entanglement while cleaning one of these dangerous machines. 

Current State and Federal Policies

The Fair Standards Labor Act of 1938 was a comprehensive piece of legislation under the New Deal that enshrined federal protections addressing minimum wage, work hours, and child labor laws. The Act has several restrictions on the employment occupancies that minors may work in; in particular, agricultural and jobs labeled as hazardous under the Department of Labor. General guidelines include prohibiting minors who are 14 years or younger from working (unless the parent is the sole employer in a nonhazardous job), at least 16 years of age for nonhazardous jobs, and at least 18 years old for hazardous jobs. The Department of Labor currently has 17 “Hazardous Occupations Orders” (HO) that specify work as hazardous, which are therefore regulated and banned for children under 18 years of age. HO 10 lists “power-driven meat processing machines, slaughtering and meat packing plants.” This bans not only the operating of these machines, but also the “cleaning [of] such equipment, including the hand-washing of the disassembled machine.” However, civil penalties for child labor violations are capped at $15,629 per employee and $71,031 for each violation that causes “death or serious injury of any employee under the age of 18.” The penalty for death or serious injury may be doubled if the act of hiring minors is repeated or committed willfully. However, state laws apply their own regulations and civil monetary fines, and many states mandate fines that are even lower than the federal maximum. For instance, Indiana has a maximum penalty of $400 per state child labor violation, and Idaho imposes a maximum fine of $50 to the employer with additional fines between $5 to $20 per day if employment continues. Other states like Delaware and Texas have a maximum fine of $10,000. 

The Department of Labor fined Packers Sanitation $1.5 million for violating child labor laws after they employed over 102 children to sanitation duties within 13 different meat packing facilities. However, PSSI is considered a subcontractor, therefore the meatpacking facilities paid no monetary fines and were not considered liable for violating child labor laws. Because meatpacking facilities are able to evade any sort of responsibility through the hiring of subcontractors, the exploitation of these migrant children can continue, and sanitation companies can be replaced without consequences. 

Potential Legislation

Congress must pass legislation that acknowledges the intersection between the sponsorship of unaccompanied minors and migrant children fulfilling dangerous jobs which they are being exploited for. Sponsorship to distant relatives or unknown individuals should require severe scrutiny and oversight with more thorough vetting procedures and tracker systems to ensure the safety of migrant children post-sponsorship. In addition, coordination between local law enforcement and state regulatory agencies with the Department of Labor would be useful in exposing and detecting meat packing facilities that are secretly hiring migrant children. For instance, in March of 2023, labor regulators in the state of Minnesota investigated Tony Downs’ Madelia plant after a tip of child labor violations. The investigation found 8 employees between the ages of 14 to 17 working “early morning hours, more than eight hours a day, and more than 40 hours a week.” The Department of Labor in Minnesota then filed a lawsuit against Tony Downs’ Madelia, and while the employment of migrant children is not specified in the lawsuit, the possibility of their continued employment still exists. Dozens or more meatpacking facilities in other states may still be continuing to employ migrant children to work dangerous jobs unlawfully. 

In 2021, during a Congressional hearing, Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh noted serious understaffing that employed 3,000 fewer individuals than it did in 2017. In addition, worker protection agencies that investigate child labor violations and prosecute the companies “lost 14% of their staff over the last four years.” In 2023, the Wage and Hour division employed approximately 794 investigators, after losing 16 investigators in a couple of months, for the millions of workplaces across the nation. With child labor violations soaring, it is clear that the Department of Labor requires increased staffing and resources to investigate these violations. In the 2024 fiscal budget, President Biden requested a budget of “$2.3 billion, an increase of $430 million above the 2023 enacted level” for the worker protection agencies. However, it is unclear whether the increase in staff will be sufficient to cover this growing issue. 

Source: CBS News

Lastly, state laws and federal regulations can be amended or enacted to impose criminal sanctions for child labor violations, raising the deterrence for such unlawful actions that are currently receiving minimal and non-consequential penalties. The corporations that are employing migrant children and children who are U.S. citizens are able to do so because of the mass profits they generate, which can offset any fine by the federal government. Therefore, not only increasing the maximum civil penalty per employee violation, but also establishing sufficient criminal penalties is a potential remedy. In October of 2023, Senator Brian Schatz introduced the “Stop Child Labor Act” in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee that expands the civil penalty to a maximum of $250,000 and potential imprisonment of one year if a violation of child labor employment is deliberately made. Lastly, the bill would establish a “National Advisory Committee on Child Labor” comprised of 12 members from the Secretary of Labor’s office, Secretary of Health and Human Services’s office, labor organizations, and members of the public. 

Why This Might Prove Difficult

The most formidable challenge to worker and immigration reform through Congress is the lack of bipartisan support for reform. Republicans are less eager to increase the budget for federal agencies, as well as provide pathways to citizenship. However, members of both the Republican and Democratic parties have not raised awareness for this matter, promoting other prominent issues such as border security and unauthorized immigration as their key focuses in immigration reform. Federal legislation may not hinder unlawful practices from large corporations that are seeking to maximize profits at low costs, in which other forms of worker exploitation may occur. Migrant child workers may face exploitation at other dangerous manual jobs, with the need of sending money back home being at the forefront of their worries. 


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