May 24, 2024

Alarming Increase In Illegal Child Workers Uncovered By Labor Department

The number of children found working illegally in the U.S. has risen by 44% over the last 10 months, the U.S. Labor Department said Wednesday as a group of bi-partisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill accused federal officials of not doing enough to protect unaccompanied migrant children from abuse.

More than 4,470 children were found working in violation of federal child labor laws between October of last year and July 20 of last week, the Labor Department said in a release that cited the conclusion of 765 child labor cases. More than 700 cases remain outstanding.

These outstanding investigations include the recent deaths of three16-year-old boys in Mississippi, Missouri and Wisconsin.

The total cases resulted in more than $6.6 million in penalties to employers, a 87% rise from the same period in the previous fiscal year, the DOL said.

Signage is seen in front of the office of staffing agency ACE Industry Co., which was fined $5,050 by Alabama Department of Labor in April for placing an underage worker at a factory in Dadeville, Alabama.

Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su said her department is “fully committed to using every governmental lever possible under federal law and current funding levels,” though the DOL has asked that more be done.

It has specifically asked Congress to increase monetary penalties for child labor violations, reasoning that the current maximum fines ― $15,138 per child ― aren’t strong enough deterrents for major profitable companies. It has also asked lawmakers to strengthen retaliation protections for people who report child labor law violations and to investigate corporations that flout child labor laws.

These latest case numbers came as Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra faced criticism in a Congressional hearing Wednesday about reports of unaccompanied migrant children working dangerous, illegal jobs, and being placed in the care of abusive sponsors through the HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The New York Times has reported that some of the children have been placed with abusive sponsors who force them to illegally work to pay off a “debt.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, seen testifying during a Congressional hearing in March, argued that his department is limited in its ability to help unaccompanied migrant children once they are placed with sponsors.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, seen testifying during a Congressional hearing in March, argued that his department is limited in its ability to help unaccompanied migrant children once they are placed with sponsors.

Becerra agreed that amid a record number of children arriving unaccompanied at the border, the instances of abuse are “real.” But he argued that the agency’s power legally ends once the child is placed with a vetted sponsor.

Of the more than 83,000 children placed with a sponsor this past fiscal year, he said that 85% of them were with a parent, legal guardian or close family member.

“We would love to do everything we do while we have the child in our custody, but once we release that child into the hand of a vetted sponsor, we lose that custodial responsibility. If Congress wants to give us more responsibility to watch over these kids, even after they have been signed to a sponsor, please, go right ahead,” he said.

Becerra said they do have post-release services for migrant children for after they’re placed with a host, but they’re voluntary and not part of the “core activity” that Congress has financially approved for the ORR. These services include mental health services and wellness check-ins like phone calls to the children and their sponsors, however, “they’re under no obligation to answer the call or return the call.”

“We would love to do everything we do while we have the child in our custody, but once we release that child into the hand of a vetted sponsor, we lose that custodial responsibility.”

– Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra

“We don’t have any ability or requirement to say to that child or sponsor, get back to us or check in with us. And that’s the difficulty here. Our authorities are very limited,” he said.

Some lawmakers said that even when working within its means, the ORR’s efforts aren’t good enough.

“We’re very concerned about the wellbeing of these children, and we have evidence that things aren’t as well as maybe you think they are,” Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) told Becerra.

“At the end of the day, as H.H.S. secretary, the buck stops with you,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.).

A woman from Colombia helps her children crawl past concertina wire, deployed to deter migrants, after they crossed the Rio Grande river into Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 27.
A woman from Colombia helps her children crawl past concertina wire, deployed to deter migrants, after they crossed the Rio Grande river into Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 27.

Becerra, when repeatedly pressed, insisted that all child sponsors must pass background checks, but he declined to specify whether these are FBI background checks, which several lawmakers took issue with.

Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) noted that people wanting to be a foster parent in her state of Arizona must undergo FBI background checks, so why not those wanting to sponsor migrant children.

“It is because they’re unaccompanied children? Because they’re illegal immigrants? What, what is the reason?” she asked.

Becerra argued that the ORR does not have the same authorities that state foster programs have, “and that’s the crux of the problem.”

The rise in unaccompanied migrant children and underage workers comes amid a nationwide labor shortage, which has contributed to the hiring of children.

Unaccompanied migrant minors, aged 3 to 9, watch a television monitor inside a playpen at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, in 2021.
Unaccompanied migrant minors, aged 3 to 9, watch a television monitor inside a playpen at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, in 2021.

Some employers have intentionally hired minors, including undocumented ones, to avoid paying more for qualified workers amid the labor shortage, Jordan Barab, former deputy assistant secretary of labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, recently told HuffPost.

“You have some employers who are basically going after the most vulnerable workers, the workers with the least ability to fight back or question anything. Who could be more vulnerable than A) children, and B) immigrant children?” Barab said.

Some states have embraced the rise in child workers, with lawmakers proposing state laws that would weaken labor protections in a bid to expand the workforce with low-paying labor amid the shortage.

“These are very independent children that want to become adults,” Sen. Michael Rulli (R-Ohio) argued back in March in support of allowing children as young as 14 to work longer hours during the school year. “I think they understand by working 10 or 15 hours a week, and getting that paycheck and that gratification, that they have self worth.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *