Migrant Children Deserve Better: End Brutal Working Conditions
Immigrant Child Labor in the U.S.
Child labor is a persistent issue in the United States that annually affects tens of thousands of immigrant children and youth. Immigrant children and youth are almost universally subject to labor law violations and exploitation because they do not possess work permits and are afraid to report or cooperate in the investigation of labor law violations. Immigrant child labor frequently has severe physical and psychological emotional consequences on those abused and exploited on the job.
While recent media reports regarding immigrant child labor have focused on the Office of Refugee Resettlment's placement of unaccompanied minors with unrelated adults who later forced children into exploitative labor situations, these cases are relatively rare and ORR is taking steps to better vet unrelated adults before placing children with them.
On the other hand, thousands of immigrant youth released by ORR to their family members living in the U.S. are daily exploited by unscrupulous employers because they lack employment authorization and are therefore working in underground jobs without labor protections.
In 2022 ORR released over 100,000 unaccompanied children to relatives living in the U.S. In the same year, about 40,000 of these children who were abused, abandoned, or neglected in their home countries, filed petitions with the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status.
In 8 U.S.C. section 1232(d)2 Congress required that USCIS "shall" adjudicate SIJ protections within 180 days. USCIS currently approves 95% of all SIJ petitions and these applicants are generally granted deferred action status (DAS) and may then apply for employment authorization.
However, USCIS routinely fails to comply with the 180-day mandate and therefore delays the ability of young immigrant workers to apply for and receive employment authorization. This unlawful delay takes place despite a permanent junction issued on behalf of all SIJ applicants in the state of Washington in the case of Galvez v. Jaddou, 52 F.4th 821 (No. 20-36052) (9th Circuit, November 3, 2022). The delay in adjudicating thousands of SIJ petitions in states other than Washington is currently being challenged in the case of Casa Libre v. Mayorkas, case number 2:22-cv-01510-ODW-JPR US District Court for the Central District of California).
DHS/USCIS would substantially decrease the illegal exploitation of young immigrant workers by complying with federal law and adjudicating SIJ petitions within 180 days.
DHS/USCIS could further protect young immigrant workers from experiencing labor law violations by granting applicants who file prima facia approvable petitions the right to apply for employment authorization before their petitions are fully adjudicated. DHS/UCSIC already grants victims of trafficking who file approvable visa petitions the right to apply for employment authorization before adjudicating their visa petitions. Extending the same policy to young SIJ petitioners of working age would substantially decrease their exploitation at workplaces and encourage them to report and cooperate in the investigation of labor law violations.
Forms of Immigrant Child Labor
Immigrant child labor takes many forms, including agricultural, domestic, and sweatshop labor. Children in agriculture often work long hours in harsh conditions, putting their health and safety at risk. Domestic work is another common form of immigrant child labor, with children often working as nannies, cleaners, or cooks in private homes. Children who work in sweatshops or factories may be exposed to hazardous materials and dangerous machinery, putting their physical and emotional well-being at risk.
Consequences of Immigrant Child Labor
The consequences of immigrant child labor can be severe and long-lasting. Children who work are often denied access to education, which can limit their opportunities for the future. Working in hazardous or exploitative conditions can also significantly impact a child's physical and emotional health, leading to injuries, illnesses, and trauma. Immigrant child labor can also perpetuate the cycle of poverty, trapping families in low-paying, exploitative work that provides little opportunity for advancement.
Solutions to Immigrant Child Labor
Addressing the issue of immigrant child labor requires a comprehensive approach that tackles the root causes of the problem. Some potential solutions include increasing access to education and social services for immigrant families, enforcing labor laws and regulations, and creating pathways to legal status for undocumented immigrants. Advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns can also play a role in highlighting the issue of immigrant child labor and calling for change. DHS/USCIS can reduce the illegal exploitation of young immigrant workers by following federal law and processing SIJ petitions within 180 days. Additionally, granting employment authorization to applicants who file prima facia approvable petitions before their petitions are fully adjudicated could further protect young immigrant workers from labor law violations. Currently, victims of trafficking who file approvable visa petitions are eligible for employment authorization before their visa petitions are adjudicated, and extending the same policy to young SIJ petitioners of working age could reduce their exploitation at workplaces and encourage them to report and cooperate in the investigation of labor law violations.
Congressional Hearings Regarding the Pervasive Issue of Child Labor Among Migrant Populations
April 18, 2023 House Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs
Hearing on Oversight of the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Unaccompanied Alien Children Program
Witness: Robin Dunn Marcos, Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement, Administration for Children and Families U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Director Marcos testified how these children are vulnerable to being exploited due to their lack of work permits and legal status. Additionally, USCIS's failure to adjudicate Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) petitions within the 180-day mandate delays the ability of young immigrant workers to apply for and receive employment authorization. Dunn Marcos provides recommendations for how to address these issues, including granting employment authorization to SIJ petitioners who file prima facia approvable petitions and expanding the SIJ program to include individuals up to the age of 25.
April 18, 2023, House Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs, Oversight of the Office of Refugee Resettlement's Unaccompanied Alien Children Program, Witness: Robin Dunn Marcos, Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Director Marcos provided testimony on the vulnerability of unaccompanied alien children to labor exploitation and USCIS's failure to adjudicate Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) petitions within the 180-day mandate, which delays their ability to apply for and receive employment authorization. Marcos recommended granting employment authorization to SIJ petitioners who file prima facia approvable petitions and expanding the SIJ program to individuals up to the age of 25.
On May 4, 2023, the Subcommittee on Health, Energy and Commerce held a hearing to discuss the oversight of unaccompanied minors by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Witnesses testified on the management of grants and contracts related to the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program, the quality of care provided to UAC, and the coordination of UAC care across federal agencies. The hearing also discussed the role of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in providing healthcare services to UAC.
Current Child Labor Laws
In recent years, the United States has taken steps to increase protections for minors in the workplace. Congress has made a bipartisan effort to raise the penalties for child labor violations, while state legislatures have raised the minimum age for certain types of work that were previously prohibited for minors. These changes reflect a growing recognition of the importance of protecting children from exploitation and ensuring they are safe and healthy while learning and growing.
To protect minors from harm, the Department of Labor has regulations that prohibit them from working in hazardous jobs that involve heavy machinery, hazardous chemicals, and construction or demolition work. Violating these regulations can result in fines or even criminal penalties for employers. Additionally, minors are subject to restrictions on the number of hours worked and the times of day they are allowed to work.
In some cases, minors may be able to obtain permits to work in certain hazardous jobs under certain conditions. These permits require specific conditions to be met, such as the provision of safety equipment and the presence of a qualified adult supervisor.
Employers have a responsibility to maintain records related to minors they employ and post notices about child labor laws. Workers have the right to report violations of labor laws to the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor.
It is important for employers and workers to understand these regulations to ensure that minors are protected from potential harm in the workplace. By working together, employers and workers can help ensure that young workers are protected and able to learn and grow in a safe and healthy workplace.
Recent Moves to Increase Regulations
In March and April of 2023, several bills and initiatives were proposed to strengthen protections for minors against child labor violations. Reports showed that such violations in hazardous occupations had increased by 70% since 2018. One of the proposed bipartisan bills, introduced by Congresswomen Hillary Scholten and Nancy Mace, would increase the maximum penalty for employers who knowingly violate child labor laws from $13,892 to $50,000 per violation. The bill would also provide additional resources to the Department of Labor to enforce the law and strengthen its authority to investigate and prosecute violations.
The proposed legislation includes provisions to ensure that minors are not employed in hazardous occupations that are prohibited by law, and to require employers to post notices of their child labor obligations in the workplace. In April 2023, Congresswoman Jasmine Crockett and other lawmakers introduced the Child Labor Exploitation Accountability Act, which would prohibit the US Department of Agriculture from engaging in contracts with companies that have violated labor laws or contracted with vendors who have failed to rectify serious labor infractions.
Also in March 2023, the US Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services announced additional steps to tackle child labor violations and strengthen coordination. The agencies will increase training and outreach efforts to educate employers and workers about child labor laws and regulations. Investigations will be increased through collaboration between federal and state agencies, and new resources will be provided to employers and workers, such as information on hazard assessments and safety plans. The agencies will also share data more effectively to target investigations and enforcement actions, aiming to ensure that children are protected from exploitation in the workplace and that employers are held accountable for violations of child labor laws.
Recent Moves to Decrease Regulations
Some state legislatures in the US are proposing or enacting laws that weaken labor protections for young workers, such as allowing them to work longer hours and in hazardous industries. States that have cut funding for agencies that enforce child labor laws include Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a Florida-based think tank, is campaigning to rewrite child labor laws to allow more young people to work in hazardous industries, such as logging and roofing, and for longer hours. The proposed revisions include lowering the minimum age for certain jobs, such as operating chainsaws, and allowing more teens to work in jobs that involve driving. Proponents argue that these changes would provide more job opportunities for young people and teach them valuable skills. However, opponents argue that these laws put young workers at risk and undermine important labor protections. States that are enacting or proposing these laws include Arizona, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, and West Virginia. These actions could potentially harm the safety and well-being of young workers and undermine the progress made in protecting them from exploitation in the workplace.