Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.

Carolina Yoc, back right, worked on math problems after a night shift at a Grand Rapids food plant. The 13-year-old girl sitting next to her said she also worked nights at a factory.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

From the New York Times:

“It was almost midnight in Grand Rapids, Mich., but inside the factory everything was bright. A conveyor belt carried bags of Cheerios past a cluster of young workers. One was 15-year-old Carolina Yoc, who came to the United States on her own last year to live with a relative she had never met.”

“The factory was full of underage workers like Carolina, who had crossed the Southern border by themselves and were now spending late hours bent over hazardous machinery, in violation of child labor laws. At nearby plants, other children were tending giant ovens to make Chewy and Nature Valley granola bars and packing bags of Lucky Charms and Cheetos — all of them working for the processing giant Hearthside Food Solutions, which would ship these products around the country.”

Far from home, many of these children are under intense pressure to earn money. They send cash back to their families while often being in debt to their sponsors for smuggling fees, rent and living expenses.

“It’s getting to be a business for some of these sponsors,” said Annette Passalacqua, who left her job as a caseworker in Central Florida last year. Ms. Passalacqua said she saw so many children put to work, and found law enforcement officials so unwilling to investigate these cases, that she largely stopped reporting them. Instead, she settled for explaining to the children that they were entitled to lunch breaks and overtime.

Sponsors are required to send migrant children to school, and some students juggle classes and heavy workloads. Other children arrive to find that they have been misled by their sponsors and will not be enrolled in school.

From NPR:

This month, Packers Sanitation Services paid a $1.5 million fine for employing 102 children to work in dangerous meatpacking facility jobs across eight states. Last summer, Reuters revealed that children as young as 12 — many of whom were migrants — were hired to work in a metal shop owned by Hyundai.

These cases represent common types of hazardous-occupation violations found by investigators — namely cleaning or operating dangerous machinery.

But immigrant children are vulnerable to other kinds of labor, too, from construction to meatpacking. Immigration raids in the early 2000s inadvertently revealed the children of migrant workers employed in meatpacking plants, and advocates like Maki have been concerned about child labor in those facilities ever since. 

Maki says such workplaces are “one of the worst environments for children to be in.”