Unaccompanied migrant children working "brutal" jobs in US

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Explosion of unaccompanied migrant children leads to exploitation in “brutal” jobs

March 6, 2023 - Mark Legg

Unaccompanied minors enter US and work in harsh conditions, despite having sponsor families. A hand grips iron bars at a construction site. © By whyframeshot/stock.adobe.com

Unaccompanied minors enter US and work in harsh conditions, despite having sponsor families. A hand grips iron bars at a construction site.

Unaccompanied minors enter US and work in harsh conditions, despite having sponsor families. A hand grips iron bars at a construction site. © By whyframeshot/stock.adobe.com

Hannah Dreier is an award-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. In a recent exposé, she lifted the floorboards of the American job market, looking at the most unappealing work, and found minors working there. Nearly all were once unaccompanied migrants at the border.

Dreier found teens on the assembly lines processing “milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream” and deboning “chicken sold at Whole Foods.” She writes, “As recently as the fall, middle-schoolers made Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors.”

How do teens end up in jobs of dangerous drudgery that can keep them from school? And why do large brands get away with using teens for illegal labor?

Because those recognized brands contract suppliers and those suppliers sometimes use illegal labor. So, blame is shunted down the ladder of the supply chain.

Where are these migrant teens coming from?

The surge of unaccompanied minors

Dreier interviewed over one hundred migrant child workers in twenty states. The kinds of jobs she found these teens working in grind adults into exhaustion, much less kids as young as thirteen. She spoke to a ninth grader named Oscar Lopez who skipped school to sleep following a fourteen-hour shift at a sawmill in South Dakota.

The government knows these children exist. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is set up to connect unaccompanied minors to relatives who already live in the US to protect them from exploitation.

For many years, thousands of teens arrived at the US borders without their parents or any guardian in order to escape abject poverty. Up until 2012, usually around 8,000 unaccompanied minors arrived every year (PDF). But in the last two years, over 250,000 have arrived, peaking at 130,000 in one year, 2022. This massive surge seems to mostly reflect covid’s squeeze on the economy in poorer Central American countries, especially Guatemala.

The HHS has not kept up with the surge. In the past, most of these kids were trying to get to their parents in the states. Only a third go to their parents now. They often rush through the vetting process of the sponsors. The HHS tries to contact children and sponsor families to make sure they’re stable, but they’ve lost connection with at least 85,000 over the last two years.

The American nightmare

Factories, processing plants, construction sites, and other strenuous workplaces always need workers, so they often don’t vet applicants closely enough. These harrowing jobs are illegal for minors to work in, but desperate middle schoolers and high schoolers can often get around the regulations by using a fake social security number or even having adults do the initial job interview for them.

These teenagers send whatever they can back to their families, knowing they face even direr  circumstances—including, often, the threat of starvation. Although Dreier’s investigation didn’t focus on this aspect, some of these unaccompanied teens could end up in the sex trade.

Around 70 percent of modern, trafficked slaves in the US are immigrants, and nearly half are minors. Without much English, their general confusion leads to particularly vulnerable prey for the monsters of the illicit sex industry.

What could possibly lead minors to throw themselves into the horrors of the unknown, often with their parents’ sanction?

Escape from something worse with at least some hope. Impoverished, unaccompanied minors forced to work exhausting jobs doesn’t sound like the American dream; it’s more like the American nightmare.

Of course, many (if not most) migrant minors who arrive in the US with good sponsor families live lives of opportunity. Yet even for them, the trauma of leaving their destitute family behind is enough suffering for a lifetime.

Modern-day slavery

Horrific, racially driven chattel slavery sank its teeth deep into the economy of the early United States. Racism gave rise to the worst oppression in our history. That kind of slavery was abolished. Now, “modern slavery” sends most cheap labor offshore to other countries. Although, as Dreier showed, there are plenty of abuses in the US too.

Cobalt Red, a new book by investigative journalist Siddharth Kara, uncovers the punishing, unsafe labor (again, often involving children) of mining in the Congo. Apple, Samsung, Tesla, and all other companies using lithium batteries claim that their cobalt is sourced ethically. When Kara personally went to the mines, he saw a different story.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the source of 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, a necessary component of all lithium batteries. Lithium batteries power the smartphone or laptop you’re reading this article on, as well as electric vehicles.

While the United States upheld justice by eradicating slavery (it still has a ways to go yet in redressing racism), modern labor abuses are hidden deep in anonymous, difficult-to-trace supply chains. Upending these chains helps Christians see the most oppressed.

It’s easy for me, or for any well-off American, to never see abuses that happen nowadays.

How the supply chain can hide abuses

Will we ever achieve a global utopia of perfect working conditions for all ages? No, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of American hypocrisy—and it certainly doesn’t preclude Christians from vigilantly seeking justice.

It’s human nature to shunt responsibility around (leaders have done that at least since biblical times). Modern, global supply chains make this particularly easy.

Family sponsors can argue that they need money so the children have no choice but to work—it’s starvation or child labor. Low-level managers can say they don’t have enough resources to vet workers well. Mid-level managers can blame tight budget margins. Executives say they didn’t know it was happening.

Some say, “The government should help the kids!” Others argue, “The families shouldn’t send their kids here!” Still others say, “It’s the fault of consumer demand!”

The responsibility endlessly shifts up and down the ladder. For this reason, I’m thankful for investigative journalists digging up these uncomfortable truths.

How do we redress these wrongs?

Our labor as Christians

In the Old Testament, prophets made judgments on Israel as a community in covenant with God. America is not in a covenant with God, to be clear. But our job communally as Christians remains the same: care for the most vulnerable.

“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17).

The Lord insists that Christians love the most vulnerable and oppressed, which means we must regularly ask a simple question: “Who are the most vulnerable? Who are the oppressed?”

God often reveals his heart for immigrants, in addition to orphans and widows, in the Bible.

Americans must become aware that a free-market supply chain can hide abuse under the cover of plausible deniability. Countries without free markets don’t fare better; most fare worse. But the appearance of fair, just trade practices often cover up less-than-just, mortifying conditions for people in the margins—the hidden part of society to us who are privileged.

God’s words: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against . . . those who oppress the hired worker in his wages . . . [and] against those who thrust aside the [immigrant]” (Malachi 3:5).

While these problems will require thoughtful policy change (the Times investigation jump-started the conversation), as Christians we are called to love “the least of these” no matter what the state does or does not do. (Matthew 25:40)

Examples like these show why Christians must consider how to use their influence for God’s good, especially for justice on behalf of the most vulnerable.

Undocumented or unaccompanied migrant minors are the “least of these” in America, living as our neighbors. Can your church partner with immigrant communities?

Here are two ministries of many that you can connect with right away:

  • Compassion International helps by holistically supporting children. This prevents kids from being put in a place of extreme vulnerability in the first place. They sponsor kids all over the world, including in Central America and the Caribbean.
  • World Relief has several initiatives to help immigrants and displaced people. You can help sponsor a week of English classes in the US or help children in Sudan go to school. Their initiatives change with the needs of displaced people across the world.

Whether refugees from war-torn Ukraine or Afghanistan or migrants fleeing poverty from Central America, think creatively: How can you and your church reach across cultural boundaries to help those in need?

Live faithfully in your highest sphere of influence.

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