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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1143: Carolina went to ninth grade and then worked eight-hour shifts right after school

Day 1143: Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Carolina went to ninth grade during the day and then worked eight-hour shifts right after school until midnight and then get up again at 6 a.m. the next day.

A series of investigative reports over the last few months has revealed that migrant children, mostly from Central America, are working in some of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S.

New York Times investigative journalist Hannah Dreier has interviewed more than 100 migrant children working in violation of child labor laws across 20 states.

"I talked to a 12-year-old girl in Alabama who was working overnight stamping auto parts. I talked to a 12-year-old in Florida who came to this country and the next day was put to work roofing houses," Dreier says.

Dreier met one 13-year-old boy in Michigan who worked 12-hour shifts at an egg farm, six days a week. "He told me that really he wanted to go to school, but he hadn't understood how expensive things were in this country," she says.

Dreier estimates that some 250,000 children have crossed into the U.S. without their parents in the last two years, and that the majority of them wind up working full-time jobs.

"These are jobs working for household brands like Cheerios, Cheetos, Ford," she says. "These are jobs that used to go to undocumented immigrants. Now they go to undocumented child migrants."

Meanwhile, Washington Post business reporter Jacob Bogage says a Florida-based conservative think tank called the Foundation for Government Accountability and its lobbying group, the Opportunity Solutions Project, are spearheading an effort to relax child labor laws across the country. Just last month, the Iowa Senate passed a bill allowing minors as young as 14 to work night shifts, and states like Missouri and Ohio are considering bills that would allow teenagers to work longer hours in jobs that were previously deemed too dangerous.

"In Iowa right now, we have this bill advancing that would roll back vast portions of the state's child labor protections," Bogage says. "This is part of a movement that we're seeing across the country. ... This is really a nationwide effort going statehouse-by-statehouse that relaxes some of these regulations."

Interview highlights

On interviewing a 15-year-old who works packaging Cheerios

Dreier: Carolina came on her own from Guatemala last year when she was 14. Like a lot of the kids I talked to, she told me that after the pandemic, food was scarce in her village. Even drinking water was scarce. There weren't jobs. And so she decided to leave and come to this country where she thought life might be easier. She weighed 84 pounds when she got to the border, and she had an aunt here who she had never met. The aunt took her in, but explained that she was already supporting her own children. She didn't have a lot of extra money. So Carolina went to work at a factory packaging Cheerios, and she would go to ninth grade during the day and then work eight-hour shifts right after school until midnight and then get up again at 6 a.m. the next day.

When I talked to her, she was getting sick a lot. Her stomach was hurting. It's very intensive work. You sort of can't take your eyes off the assembly line. It's work where people have gotten their fingers amputated. It can be really dangerous. And she was skipping school more and more because she was just struggling to get through the days without any sleep.

Now hiring unaccom[panied minors...

Child labor is nothing new for the United States. Photographer Lewis Hine captured these images in the period 1909 - 1920. Hine's work was often dangerous. As a photographer, he was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. At the time, the immorality of child labor was meant to be hidden from the public. Photography was not only prohibited but also posed a serious threat to the industry. To gain entry to the mills, mines and factories, Hine was forced to assume many guises. At times he was a fire inspector, postcard vendor, bible salesman, or even an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery.

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