Walter was 16 when he started working the overnight shift at a plastics factory in Central Massachusetts.
He had come from Guatemala on his own to join his father, desperate to escape a poor, violent country where two of his childhood friends were shot to death. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., Walter trimmed plastic with sharp knives and retrieved hot molds stuck inside machines, then went straight to Framingham High School, bleary eyed, often falling asleep in class. He later got a job at a massive commercial greenhouse, cleaning machines that planted and harvested produce, sometimes working until 5 a.m. In warm weather, he worked 50 hours a week — using his earnings to pay rent and help his family back home, as well as a 16-year-old sister who recently arrived here.
Walter is one of an increasing number of young migrants making the long, dangerous journey to the United States not just in search of a better life, but to earn money for their families — often working long, late hours at grueling jobs in violation of child labor laws.
Now 19, and a high school senior, Walter feels stuck.
“Sometimes I just feel like there is no way forward,” he said in Spanish through a translator. (Walter asked not to be fully identified, or to name his employers, to protect others currently working there.) “But I also remember that I come from a country where the opportunities to make something of yourself are about zero.”
A recent New York Times investigation revealed how widespread the problem has become since the pandemic deepened the desperation in poor Central American countries, funneling more children into an overwhelmed US system that has failed to protect them. These young migrants, many of whom come from places where child labor is prevalent, are working in construction and in slaughterhouses, as well as producing goods for major brands, the Times found: packaging Cheetos and Cheerios, making auto parts used by General Motors and Ford, baking dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target.
Massachusetts has fewer large factories and meat-packing plants than other states, and advocates say egregious labor trafficking is less common here. But still, migrant children are processing fish in New Bedford, roofing houses in the Boston suburbs, toiling deep into the night in greenhouses in Central Massachusetts, and working in restaurant kitchens everywhere.
Some 2,700 unaccompanied minors arrived in Massachusetts in fiscal year 2022, up from 738 in 2015, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. That mirrors a nearly fourfold increase nationally. Nearly half of the young migrants arriving alone in the United States are from Guatemala — and more than a quarter are under the age of 15.
When children come alone, federal authorities have to locate an adult sponsor. These sponsors — usually family members, but sometimes a distant acquaintance — may be undocumented themselves, living in crowded conditions where beds may be shared between those who work night shifts and those who work days. Some young migrants are asked to assist with rent or groceries and may owe thousands of dollars to smugglers for their border crossing.
“There is tremendous pressure on these children who’ve borrowed money and have lots of debt, and also obligations to send money back to highly impoverished family members back home,” said Corinn Williams, executive director of the Community Economic Development Center in New Bedford, a nonprofit serving the immigrant community there.
When unaccompanied minors turn themselves in or are caught at the border, they’re given a court date, where they can seek asylum, or — if they’ve been abused, neglected, or abandoned by a parent — special immigrant juvenile status. Cases can take years to process, and while they do migrants can legally remain in the United States. But it wasn’t until last year that those seeking special juvenile visas were allowed to work in age-appropriate situations.
In Massachusetts, children as young as 14 are allowed to work limited hours at certain low-risk jobs, but no one under 18 is allowed to work in meat-processing plants or on roofs or in a number of other potentially hazardous roles. Working past 10 p.m. on school nights is barred for minors under 18, although 16- and 17-year-olds can work up to 48 hours a week.
The federal government doesn’t formally check in on unaccompanied minors to ensure they aren’t working in illegal conditions. But within days of the New York Times report, the Biden administration rolled out a raft of new efforts to combat child labor exploitation, including reviewing vetting for sponsors, expanding services once children have been released, and mandating follow-up calls when unaccompanied children report safety concerns.
The number of children employed illegally has nearly quadrupled in seven years, according to the US Department of Labor. Yet, as the labor shortage stretches on, a number of states are trying to roll back protections. In Arkansas, the state’s labor department is no longer required to certify workers under 16. A bill introduced in Iowa would allow children as young as 14 to work in meat coolers and industrial laundries, while a Minnesota measure would allow 16-year-olds to work on construction sites.
But for unaccompanied minors, the problem goes beyond child labor laws, advocates say, to flawed policies that make it difficult for all migrants to work — and get legal status — while leaving companies that illegally employ them relatively unscathed.
After a federal raid in October found more than 100 teens cleaning slaughterhouses for Packers Sanitation Services, the stepfather of a 13-year-old girl in Nebraska was sent to jail for driving her to work, according to The Washington Post, while her mother faces jail time for obtaining fake work documents. The parents, who came to the United States from Guatemala several years ago, fear they could be deported. (Packers was fined $1.5 million, the maximum allowed, but faces no criminal charges.)
These difficulties create a major dilemma, advocates say: Migrant children are working because they need to support themselves and their families, which makes them less likely to report unsafe conditions or unpaid wages. And those trying to help them are conflicted about confronting employers out of fear the young migrants will lose much-needed income.
“We can say all day long that as a country we don’t accept child labor,” said Alexandra Weber, senior vice president at the International Institute of New England, which works with unaccompanied minors. “But are we willing to let children starve because their families can’t afford food?”
In the seafood-processing plants that line the New Bedford waterfront, largely immigrant workforces use sharp knives to filet fish and operate powerful machines to extract shellfish, often in freezing temperatures. At one plant, two workers were killed within five years after getting caught up in the machines.
Americans don’t want to work there, said Adrian Ventura, executive director of the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores workers’ center in New Bedford. So, sometimes, young migrants do.
The staffing agencies that are often the source of underage workers are aware they’re sending kids into these factories, and factories know it, too, Ventura said, speaking in Spanish through a translator: “It’s like this open secret. Everybody knows that it’s going on.”
A spokesman for a fishing industry group said that member companies in New Bedford cited by worker advocates for employing underage migrants comply with hiring laws and don’t currently work with staffing agencies identified as problematic.
The owner of one staffing agency that advocates said employed underage workers denied the allegations but noted that some of his competitors don’t verify work documents.
Manuela Cuin arrived in New Bedford from an indigenous Mayan community in Guatemala when she was 15. Her father was already here, processing fish for Finicky Pet Food, and Cuin started working with him, feeding fish into a machine 12 hours a day, five days a week, for the next five years. The floor was slippery with water and blood, the fish bones cut into her hands, and the cold made her fingers and toes go numb. Her male co-workers leered at her.
At the time, Cuin didn’t question her situation. In her culture, she said, children do as their parents say, and her father told her she needed to provide for the family. The company’s longtime owner said he requires employees to have the proper paperwork and is unaware of underage workers ever working at the plant.
Cuin finally went back to Guatemala, where her mother still lives — in a much nicer house than before, thanks in part to Cuin’s hard work. But the oppression and machismo in her country were overwhelming, and she came back to New Bedford. Now 33, with two children in school, Cuin is preparing for her high school equivalency test and looking for a job. But her time at the fish plant haunts her.
“I think of that five years of my life as being ‘esclava,’” she said — searching for the word in English and finally finding it: “slave.”
Over the past two years, the US Department of Health and Human Services lost immediate contact with a third of the 250,000 children who arrived unaccompanied, according to the New York Times investigation. Immigration officials have come under pressure to get children out of the shelters where they are initially held, the Times reported, and caseworkers admitted to rushing the vetting of adult sponsors.
But many of these children are at risk regardless of who they’re released to.
“Just because children are fleeing poverty doesn’t mean they’re entering a world without poverty,” said Weber, of the International Institute of New England, which helps vet sponsors and provides post-release services.
When visiting workers’ homes, International Institute staff often see a family living in each bedroom, sometimes with one in the living room, too. Some of the sponsors worked as children themselves and may not understand child labor law. And the wages are so much higher than they could earn back home that it doesn’t make sense — to the kids or the adults — not to work.
One teenager illegally employed at a restaurant that bussed him to work but otherwise wouldn’t let him leave staff housing was unhappy that, after the Institute helped place him in foster care, he could no longer work.
For some children, earning money is a matter of life or death. Smugglers are often involved with international cartels, said Danielle Pocock, a human trafficking attorney at Ascentria Care Alliance in Worcester. If migrant youths don’t pay what they owe, the cartel may threaten to kill family members or kidnap the child, Pocock said.
What’s often overlooked is the trauma these kids have suffered, said María José Morales, a licensed mental health counselor at the Immigrants’ Assistance Center in New Bedford. Many fled violence, oppression, or sexual abuse in their home countries, then traveled thousands of miles, facing the threat of being kidnapped or raped along the way.
Once here, they’re expected to enroll in school. But many lack basic literacy skills and may not get much-needed language assistance. Schools aren’t set up to accommodate children with jobs, said Emily Hoffman, who leads a migrant education program at the Northampton-based Collaborative for Educational Services. Many drop out.
“Work is always going to take priority over everything else,” Hoffman said.
Diego Low, director of the Metrowest Worker Center in Framingham, has helped migrant children as young as 12 who are working on construction sites, including a 15-year-old who fell and broke his femur. But given that laws regulating staffing agencies are so weak, and the debt owed to smugglers is so high, Low usually only goes after the worst offenders.
“If you come up here and owe $15,000 with 6 percent interest per month, what are you going to do?” Low said. “How are we going to pick a fight about them working too much?”
David, a 17-year-old from Guatemala, started working nights alongside Walter at the commercial greenhouse two years ago. He has a scar on his right hand from the powerful sanitizer used to clean the machines, and another scar from the time his arm got caught in an elevated conveyor belt and the ladder fell out from underneath him, leaving him hanging in midair.
“I started yelling, ‘Stop the belt, stop the belt,’” said David, speaking in Spanish while Low translated. He went to the hospital in an ambulance and was out of work for two weeks, unpaid.
David, who also asked to be identified only by his first name, dropped out of school and now works alongside his mother assembling convenience store sandwiches. They’re saving up for an immigration lawyer, and sending money to family who had to leave Guatemala City, and their jobs, to escape gang violence.
Walter, in the meantime, is set to graduate from Framingham High School in June. And then? “Work,” he said.
“There are people ... who have opportunities from the beginning, and there are others who have many fewer,” he said. “In my case, I’ve been kind of on my own. I’ve learned that things have a cost.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.