School’s Out for Summer: But for Many Migrant Kids, the Hard Work Is Just Beginning

Original illustration by Matt Jenkins

By Grace Stevens, age 12

You have to be at least 16 to get a job in the United States… right? It turns out that in the past five years, there has been a 70% increase in the number of children illegally employed by companies, according to the Department of Labor, and at least 10 states have introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections in the past two years.

An exposé published in March in the New York Times uncovered that migrant children under age 16 have been taking on very dangerous and grueling jobs, many that even adults don’t want to do. The exposé revealed that around the United States, predominantly migrant kids, some as young as 12 years old, are being hired to work in factories, meatpacking plants and even on construction sites.

Carolina Yoc, a 15-year-old who came to the United States alone from Guatemala, works night shifts in a Cheerios factory. She said to the Times that working all night and going to school all day has taken its toll on her health. “Sometimes I get tired and feel sick. But I’m getting used to it.” Kevin Thomas from Grand Rapids, Mich., began working for a company that manufactures car parts for Ford and General Motors at 13, according to the exposé. His shifts end at 6:30 a.m., making it difficult for him to stay awake during school. “It’s not that we want to be working these jobs,” explained Kevin in the report. “It’s that we have to help our families.”

Pushed by economic desperation made worse by the pandemic, the number of kids entering the United States has exploded over the last few years. When Biden’s presidency began, faced with the issue of having thousands of kids in cages—thanks to Trump’s child separation policy of 2018—the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) pushed for a policy of quickly and carelessly releasing migrant kids to sponsors. The policy also occurred during a labor shortage due to the pandemic, resulting in many companies being willing to turn a blind eye to their workers’ age.

In 2022, more than 130,000 unaccompanied minors entered the United States from the U.S.-Mexico border, an all-time high. The majority of the child workers, however, are not undocumented. They have passed through the U.S. immigration system, and now HHS is legally responsible for their well-being and must call them one month after they have been released to a sponsor or guardian. However, according to data obtained by the Times, in the last two years, HHS claims that they lost contact with more than 85,000 children, or a third of all the kids in their care.

Federal child labor laws, which are laws that restrict the age that someone can have a job, have been in place since around 1938. However, the Cheerios factory where Carolina works was full of underage workers, all of them at risk of serious injury, even death, because of the dangerous machinery. The exposé found children working for Hearthside Food Solutions, laboring over giant ovens producing Chewy and Nature Valley granola bars, Lucky Charms and Cheetos. 

Lawmakers all across the country, instead of pushing to help these kids, are proposing bills in an attempt to roll back the child labor laws which protect them. A bill presented by Minnesota state Sen. Rich Draheim would make it legal for 16-year-olds to work on construction sites. A proposed bill in Iowa would allow for children as young as 14 to work in extremely dangerous industrial facilities. Nebraska senators want to allow companies to pay minors less than minimum wage. Many are also pushing for kids not to be covered by workers’ compensation, meaning that employers are not responsible if workers get injured or killed at work.

Top Senate Democrats sent a letter to HHS and the Department of Labor in March stating they were “deeply disturbed” that “large numbers of unaccompanied noncitizen children are being placed with exploitative sponsors and working long hours in dangerous conditions,” and were demanding answers. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan bill that would increase nearly tenfold the fines on employers who illegally hire children. “Children should be in school,” said Democratic Rep. Hillary Scholten of Michigan, who introduced the bill, “not factories with dangerous working conditions.”

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