Children across the nation are working in dangerous, sometimes lethal jobs in American factories, farms and mills — according to a New York Times exposé that has rattled corporate America, President Biden, and Congress.
The kids, who are here without their parents, have fled countries rife with violence and poverty. Many are seeking asylum and other protections under the law. But in the meantime, they are laboring in the shadows — in physically demanding jobs that employers often have trouble filling. These children are helping to put food on our tables and clothes on our backs — sometimes suffering serious injuries as a result. The moral implications are chilling.
The Biden administration responded swiftly, promising an inter-agency task force that will rightly focus on the direct problem of failed child labor protections. But this moment also calls for big policy solutions — without them, children and adults will remain vulnerable to exploitation, in ways that intersect profoundly with our daily lives.
1. We need an earned path to citizenship for immigrants.
Why would some of the top names in American business look the other way as children are hired into jobs that are only suitable for adults? One reason is the profound shortage of workers — the nation has over 10 million job openings but only 5.7 million unemployed workers. Immigration restrictions are a strain on the American economy, as Labor Secretary Martin Walsh recently explained. Despite bipartisan consensus on the importance of immigration to fueling economic growth and addressing the labor shortage, Congress has struggled for more than two decades to pass sensible immigration reform. The issue remains mired in ugly, xenophobic rhetoric.
There are now more than 11 million undocumented people in the country, living and working as our neighbors and close relatives of U.S. citizens. Many have lived in the country for decades, paying billions in federal, state, and local taxes. The absence of a path to legal status has created an American underclass — people relegated to a lifetime of disadvantage and vulnerability to exploitation — including by employers. This is anathema to our Constitution and values of fairness and dignity for all workers. Yet, as long as our economy depends on the labor of people working in the shadows, immigrant workers will continue to be vulnerable to exploitation and harm, sometimes trapped in jobs with poor working conditions — undermining labor protections for all. And fixing our broken immigration system will also fuel wage and job growth for native-born Americans.
The Biden administration and Congress should use this moment to re-engage in stalled discussions over creating a path to citizenship for our immigrant co-workers, neighbors, and loved ones.
2. We need a border management system that allows children to be with their parents as they seek protection.
Why are the children laboring in these conditions here without their parents? For some, their parents may not have been allowed to enter the country alongside them, due to restrictive policies like one known as Title 42. It’s a Trump-era policy initially used to shut down the asylum system during the pandemic. President Biden has embraced it for far too long. Policies like this force parents to make an impossible choice: Send their kids alone to the U.S., or keep them in dangerous situations at home or in Mexican border towns, waiting in limbo.
Rather than solving this problem, the Biden administration recently announced its intent to implement a new asylum ban that would continue to restrict many families from accessing asylum together. The ACLU called on the Biden administration to abandon this plan, which mimics the illegal Trump asylum bans that courts halted after our lawsuits.
Kids seeking asylum and other protections should be allowed to enter the country and seek those protections with their parents. Keeping families together is the best way to ensure that children are cared for and kept safe from exploitation.
3. We need to provide legal counsel and services to these children.
Why are migrant children working in dangerous jobs in the first place — especially since the U.S. government knows they are here and they are in the process of seeking legal protections?
First, as many as half of all unaccompanied children do not have lawyers. For children old enough to work and who are eligible, a lawyer could support them in applying for a work permit. Without work authorization, these older children are left to work in the shadow economy.
More broadly, these children need lawyers to help them navigate the complex legal system and act as a trusted adult to whom they can turn for help. The White House’s interagency task force should heed advocates’ longstanding calls to ensure legal representation for unaccompanied children — as well as offer social services for their health and well-being.