How Illegal Migration Fuels Child Labor in American Suburbia

In a November 19 story – co-published with Mother Jones and El PaísProPublica Illinois’ Melissa Sanchez shines a light on illegal alien child labor in the suburbs of Chicago. Although leftist ProPublica is hardly a pro-enforcement media outlet, the article nevertheless demonstrates how mass illegal migration – combined with greedy smugglers and the debts incurred by illegal aliens to the criminal cartels that smuggle them into the country, unscrupulous employers, and passive worksite enforcement– coalesce to facilitate and fuel the exploitation of children at the workplace.

In her piece, Sanchez concentrates on Central American (mainly Guatemalan indigenous) migrant teenagers. Many of these migrants arrived as UACs (unaccompanied alien children), allowed themselves to get caught by the Border Patrol, applied for asylum, and were eventually released to “sponsors.” The author admits that these young asylum applicants are overwhelmingly economic migrants, coming to make money and help their families. She also acknowledges that “as word spread that it was easy for minors — or adults accompanied by a child — to get into the U.S. and seek asylum,” increasing numbers of economic migrants have attempted to use that loophole.

“Some began to work when they were just 13 or 14,” writes Sanchez, “packing the candy you find by the supermarket register, cutting the slabs of raw meat that end up in your freezer and baking, in industrial ovens, the pastries you eat with your coffee.” Other places of employment included automotive parts factories and recycling facilities.

The teenagers knew they were legally not supposed to be working, and that it could jeopardize their asylum cases in immigration court. Many, however, feel that they have little choice but to toil away. One 15-year-old “had debts to pay, starting with the roughly $3,000 he owed for the ‘coyote’ who guided him across Mexico from Guatemala. To finance the trip, his parents had taken out a bank loan, using their house as collateral. If he didn’t repay it, the family could lose its home.”

The migrant children usually find work through temporary staffing agencies (“oficinas” in Spanish), which gives business owners a degree of cover and plausible deniability. Many work during the night, which often makes them too exhausted and sleep-deprived to pay attention in school, causing more than a few to simply drop out and continue working illegally. Some are also hurt on the job, but prefer not to seek medical attention to avoid trouble.

Sanchez bemoans the reactive passivity of “government agencies charged with enforcing child labor laws [that]don’t look for violations, though some officials say they aren’t surprised to hear it’s happening. Instead, those agencies wait for complaints to come to them, and they almost never do.” Thus, “the companies benefit from the silence. It’s an open secret no one wants exposed, least of all the teenagers doing the work.”

And, finally, the article contains a telling tidbit about the impact of the above-described child labor on the labor market. Sanchez mentions “an indigenous Guatemalan labor leader” who “has heard complaints from adult workers in the fish-packing industry who say they’re losing their jobs to 14-year-olds.” Since these adult workers are almost certainly illegal aliens, this snippet demonstrates that high levels of unchecked illegal migration can have a negative impact even on other unlawfully present foreign nationals, let alone legal immigrants or U.S. citizens.

While Sanchez believes that more proactive worksite enforcement is necessary, she also argues that it is not a long-term structural solution.

“The problem is larger than the question of enforcement,” she continues, since “it’s a reflection of the intractable poverty in the countries that send migrants of all ages here and the pull of an American labor market eager to hire them.” Much of that is true, although it ignores other enabling factors, such as porous borders and sanctuary policies. And while there is admittedly a lot of poverty in places like Central America, there are also phenomena such as Guatemala’s “house envy” (when remittances from the U.S. fund the building of mansion-like houses in the indigenous highlands).

We should add that the pro-mass-migration crowd’s typical answers to the problem – including amnesty and liberalizing asylum – are also not a long-term viable solution. That’s because it will encourage further illegal migration and the problems that it facilitates, such as child labor, will therefore continue. A much more sensible approach is a combination of border security, worksite enforcement (including E-Verify), and discouraging asylum abuse – along with encouraging better policies in migrant-exporting nations that foster economic development and reduce poverty.

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