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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1081: Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.

Day 1081: Thursday, March 2, 2023

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

Arriving in record numbers, they’re ending up in dangerous jobs that violate child labor laws — including in factories that make products for well-known brands like Cheetos and Fruit of the Loom.

Cristian works a construction job instead of going to school. He is 14.

Carolina packages Cheerios at night in a factory. She is 15.

Wander starts looking for day-labor jobs before sunrise. He is 13.

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.

About every 10 seconds, she stuffed a sealed plastic bag of cereal into a passing yellow carton. It could be dangerous work, with fast-moving pulleys and gears that had torn off fingers and ripped open a woman’s scalp.

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.

“Sometimes I get tired and feel sick,” Carolina said after a shift in November. Her stomach often hurt, and she was unsure if that was because of the lack of sleep, the stress from the incessant roar of the machines, or the worries she had for herself and her family in Guatemala. “But I’m getting used to it.”

These workers are part of a new economy of exploitation: Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country, a New York Times investigation found. This shadow workforce extends across industries in every state, flouting child labor laws that have been in place for nearly a century. Twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee. Underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina. Children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota.

Largely from Central America, the children are driven by economic desperation that was worsened by the pandemic. This labor force has been slowly growing for almost a decade, but it has exploded since 2021, while the systems meant to protect children have broken down.

In town after town, children scrub dishes late at night. They run milking machines in Vermont and deliver meals in New York City. They harvest coffee and build lava rock walls around vacation homes in Hawaii. Girls as young as 13 wash hotel sheets in Virginia.

Oscar Lopez, a ninth grader, works overnight at a sawmill in South Dakota. On this day, he skipped school to sleep after a 14-hour shift.

Migrant child labor benefits both under-the-table operations and global corporations, The Times found. In Los Angeles, children stitch “Made in America” tags into J. Crew shirts. They bake dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, process milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and help debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. 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.

The number of unaccompanied minors entering the United States climbed to a high of 130,000 last year — three times what it was five years earlier — and this summer is expected to bring another wave.

These are not children who have stolen into the country undetected. The federal government knows they are in the United States, and the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them and protect them from trafficking or exploitation.

(Christian age 16 and his sister age 12)

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.

A representative for Hearthside said the company relied on a staffing agency to supply some workers for its plants in Grand Rapids, but conceded that it had not required the agency to verify ages through a national system that checks Social Security numbers. Unaccompanied migrant children often obtain false identification to secure work.

“We are immediately implementing additional controls to reinforce all agencies’ strict compliance with our longstanding requirement that all workers must be 18 or over,” the company said in a statement.

At Union High School in Grand Rapids, Carolina’s ninth-grade social studies teacher, Rick Angstman, has seen the toll that long shifts take on his students. One, who was working nights at a commercial laundry, began passing out in class from fatigue and was hospitalized twice, he said. Unable to stop working, she dropped out of school.

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