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Alone and exploited, migrant children work brutal jobs across the US

Young workers exit JBS pork plant after an overnight cleaning shift in Worthington, Minn. on Oct. 18, 2022.KIRSTEN LUCE/NYT

It was almost midnight in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 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.

“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.

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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.

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.

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The Times spoke with more than 100 migrant child workers in 20 states who described jobs that were grinding them into exhaustion, and fears that they had become trapped. The Times examination also drew on court and inspection records and interviews with hundreds of lawyers, social workers, educators and law enforcement officials.

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 for 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.

Children being processed by the U.S. Border Patrol in Roma, Texas on May 7, 2022.KIRSTEN LUCE/NYT

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.

But as more and more children have arrived, the Biden White House has ramped up demands on staffers to move the children quickly out of shelters and release them to adults. Caseworkers say they rush through vetting sponsors.

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While HHS checks on all minors by calling them a month after they begin living with their sponsors, data obtained by the Times showed that over the past two years, the agency could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, the agency lost immediate contact with one-third of migrant children.

An HHS spokesperson said the agency wanted to release children swiftly, for the sake of their well-being, but had not compromised safety. “There are numerous places along the process to continually ensure that a placement is in the best interest of the child,” said the spokesperson, Kamara Jones.

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. 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.

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The federal government hires child welfare agencies to track some minors who are deemed to be at high risk. But caseworkers at those agencies said that HHS regularly ignored obvious signs of labor exploitation, a characterization the agency disputed.

In interviews with more than 60 caseworkers, most independently estimated that about two-thirds of all unaccompanied migrant children ended up working full time.

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 long-standing 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.

“She disappeared into oblivion,” Angstman said. “It’s the new child labor. You’re taking children from another country and putting them in almost indentured servitude.”

On the Night Shift

When Carolina left Guatemala, she had no real understanding of what she was heading toward, just a sense that she could not stay in her village any longer.

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The only people who seemed to be getting by were the families living off remittances from relatives in the United States. Carolina lived alone with her grandmother. When neighbors started talking about heading north, she decided to join. She was 14.

Carolina reached the U.S. border exhausted. Agents sent her to an HHS shelter in Arizona, where a caseworker contacted her aunt, Marcelina Ramirez. Ramirez was at first reluctant: She had already sponsored two other relatives and had three children of her own. They were living on $600 a week.

When Carolina arrived in Grand Rapids last year, Ramirez told her she would go to school every morning and suggested that she pick up evening shifts at Hearthside. Child labor is the norm in rural Guatemala, and she herself had started working around the second grade.

One of the nation’s largest contract manufacturers, Hearthside makes and packages food for companies like Frito-Lay, General Mills and Quaker Oats.

General Mills, whose brands include Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Nature Valley, said it recognized “the seriousness of this situation” and was reviewing the Times’ findings. PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats, declined to comment.

Three people who until last year worked at one of the biggest employment agencies in Grand Rapids, Forge Industrial Staffing, said Hearthside supervisors were sometimes made aware that they were getting young-looking workers whose identities had been flagged as false.

“Hearthside didn’t care,” said Nubia Malacara, a former Forge employee who said she had also worked at Hearthside as a minor.

In a statement, Hearthside said, “We do care deeply about this issue and are concerned about the mischaracterization of Hearthside.” A spokesperson for Forge said it complied with state and federal laws and “would never knowingly employ individuals under 18.”

‘So Many Red Flags’

The growth of migrant child labor in the United States over the past several years is a result of a chain of willful ignorance. Companies ignore the young faces in their backrooms and on their factory floors. Schools often decline to report apparent labor violations, believing it will hurt children more than help. And HHS behaves as if the migrant children who melt unseen into the country are doing just fine.

“As the government, we’ve turned a blind eye to their trafficking,” said Doug Gilmer, the head of the Birmingham, Alabama, office of Homeland Security Investigations, a federal agency that often becomes involved with immigration cases.

Gilmer teared up as he recalled finding 13-year-olds working in meat plants; 12-year-olds working at suppliers for Hyundai and Kia, as documented last year by a Reuters investigation; and children who should have been in middle school working at commercial bakeries.

“We’re encountering it here because we’re looking for it here,” Gilmer said. “It’s happening everywhere.”

Children have crossed the southern border on their own for decades, and since 2008, the United States has allowed non-Mexican minors to live with sponsors while they go through immigration proceedings, which can take several years. The policy, codified in anti-trafficking legislation, is intended to prevent harm to children who would otherwise be turned away and left alone in a Mexican border town.

When Kelsey Keswani first worked as an HHS contractor in Arizona to connect unaccompanied migrant children with sponsors in 2010, the adults were almost always the children’s parents, who had paid smugglers to bring them up from Central America, she said.

Now, just one-third of migrant children are going to their parents. A majority are sent to other relatives, acquaintances or even strangers, a Times analysis of federal data showed. Nearly half are coming from Guatemala, where poverty is fueling a wave of migration. Parents know that they would be turned away at the border or quickly deported, so they send their children in hopes that remittances will come back.

In the past two years alone, more than 250,000 children have entered the United States by themselves.

The shifting dynamics in Central America helped create a political crisis early in Joe Biden’s presidency, when children started crossing the border faster than HHS could process them. With no room left in shelters, the children stayed in jail-like facilities run by Customs and Border Protection and, later, in tent cities. The images of children sleeping on gym mats attracted intense media attention.

The Biden administration pledged to move children through the shelter system more quickly. “We don’t want to continue to see a child languish in our care if there is a responsible sponsor,” Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, told Congress in 2021.

His agency began paring back protections that had been in place for years, including some background checks and reviews of children’s files, according to memos reviewed by the Times and interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees.

“Twenty percent of kids have to be released every week or you get dinged,” said Keswani, who stopped working with HHS last month.

Concerns piled up in summer 2021 at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS division responsible for unaccompanied migrant children. In a memo that July, 11 managers said they were worried that labor trafficking was increasing and complained to their bosses that the office had become “one that rewards individuals for making quick releases, and not one that rewards individuals for preventing unsafe releases.”

Staff members said in interviews that Becerra continued to push for faster results, often asking why they could not discharge children with machine-like efficiency.

Jones, the HHS spokesperson, said that Becerra had urged his staff to “step it up.” “Like any good leader, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again — especially when it comes to the well-being and safety of children,” she said.

‘It Was All Lies’

While many migrant children are sent to the United States by their parents, others are persuaded to come by adults who plan to profit from their labor.

Nery Cutzal was 13 when he met his sponsor over Facebook Messenger. Once Nery arrived in Florida, he discovered that he owed more than $4,000 and had to find his own place to live. His sponsor sent him threatening text messages and kept a running list of new debts.

Nery began working until 3 a.m. most nights at a Mexican restaurant near Palm Beach, Florida, to make the payments. “He said I would be able to go to school and he would take care of me, but it was all lies,” Nery said.

Nery eventually contacted law enforcement, and last year, his sponsor was found guilty of smuggling a child into the United States for financial gain. That outcome is rare: In the past decade, federal prosecutors have brought only about 30 cases involving forced labor of unaccompanied minors, according to a Times review of court databases.

Unlike the foster care system, in which all children get case management, HHS provides this service to about one-third of children who pass through its care, and usually for just four months. Tens of thousands of other children are sent to their sponsors with little but the phone number for a national hotline.

Calling the hotline is not a sure way to get support, either. Juanito Ferrer called for help after he was brought to Manassas, Virginia, at age 15 by an acquaintance who forced him to paint houses during the day and guard an apartment complex at night. His sponsor took his paychecks and watched him on security cameras as he slept on the basement floor.

Juanito said that when he called the hotline in 2019, the person on the other end just took a report. “I thought they’d send the police or someone to check, but they never did that,” he said. He eventually escaped.

Asked about the hotline, HHS said operators passed reports onto law enforcement and other local agencies because the agency did not have the authority to remove children from homes.

The Times analyzed government data to identify places with high concentrations of children who had been released to people outside their immediate families — a sign that they might have been expected to work. In northwest Grand Rapids, for instance, 93% of children have been released to adults who are not their parents.

HHS does not track these clusters, but the trends are so pronounced that officials sometimes notice hot spots anyway.

Scott Lloyd, who led the resettlement office in the Trump administration, said he realized in 2018 that the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan boys being released to sponsors in South Florida seemed to be growing.

But his attention was diverted by the chaos around the Trump administration’s child separation policy, and he never looked into it. The trend he saw has only accelerated.

In a statement, HHS said it had updated its case management system to better flag instances when multiple children were being released to the same person or address.

Occupational Hazards

Teachers at Carolina’s high school estimated that 200 of their immigrant students were working full time while trying to keep up with their classes. The greatest share of Angstman’s students worked at one of the four Hearthside plants in the city.

The company, which has 39 factories in the United States, has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for 34 violations since 2019, including for unsafe conveyor belts at the plant where Carolina found her job. At least 11 workers suffered amputations in that time.

The history of accidents “shows a corporate culture that lacks urgency to keep workers safe,” an OSHA official wrote after the most recent violation for an amputation.

Hearthside said in a statement that it was committed to complying with laws governing worker protections. “We strongly dispute the safety allegations made and are proud of our safety-first culture,” the statement read.

Federal law bars minors from a long list of dangerous jobs, including roofing, meat processing and commercial baking. Except on farms, children younger than 16 are not supposed to work for more than three hours or after 7 p.m. on school days.

But these jobs — which are grueling and poorly paid, and thus chronically short-staffed — are exactly where many migrant children are ending up. Adolescents are twice as likely as adults to be seriously injured at work, yet recently arrived preteens and teenagers are running industrial dough mixers, driving massive earthmovers and burning their hands on hot tar as they lay down roofing shingles, the Times found.

Targeting the Middlemen

In interviews with underage migrant workers, the Times found child labor in the U.S. supply chains of many major brands and retailers. Several, including Ford, General Motors, J. Crew and Walmart, as well as their suppliers, said they took the allegations seriously and would investigate. Target and Whole Foods did not respond to requests for comment. Fruit of the Loom said it had ended its contract with the supplier.

One company, Ben & Jerry’s, said it worked with labor groups to ensure a minimum set of working conditions at its dairy suppliers. Cheryl Pinto, the company’s head of values-led sourcing, said that if migrant children needed to work full time, it was preferable for them to have jobs at a well-monitored workplace.

The Labor Department is supposed to find and punish child labor violations, but inspectors in a dozen states said their understaffed offices could barely respond to complaints, much less open original investigations. When the department has responded to tips on migrant children, it has focused on the outside contractors and staffing agencies that usually employ them, not the corporations where they perform the work.

In Worthington, Minnesota, it had long been an open secret that migrant children released by HHS were cleaning a slaughterhouse run by JBS, the world’s largest meat processor. The town has received more unaccompanied migrant children per capita than almost anywhere in the country.

Outside the JBS pork plant last fall, the Times spoke with baby-faced workers who chased and teased one another as they came off their shifts in the morning.

Not long afterward, labor inspectors responding to a tip found 22 Spanish-speaking children working for the company hired to clean the JBS plant in Worthington, and dozens more in the same job at meat-processing plants around the United States.

But the Labor Department can generally only issue fines. The cleaning company paid a $1.5 million penalty, while JBS said it had been unaware that children were scouring the Worthington factory each night. JBS fired the cleaning contractor.

Many of the children who were working there have found new jobs at other plants, the Times found.

“I still have to pay back my debt, so I still have to work,” said Mauricio Ramirez, 17, who has found a meat processing job in the next town over.