How Illegal Migration Fuels Child Labor in American Suburbia
In a November 19 story – co-published with Mother Jones and El País – ProPublica 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 migrantsarrived as UACs (unaccompanied alien children), allowed themselves to getcaught by the Border Patrol, applied for asylum, and were eventually releasedto “sponsors.” The author admits that these young asylum applicants areoverwhelmingly economic migrants, coming to make money and help their families.Shealso acknowledges that “as word spread that it was easy for minors — or adultsaccompanied by a child — to get into the U.S. and seek asylum,” increasingnumbers 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, inindustrial ovens, the pastries you eat with your coffee.” Other places ofemployment included automotive parts factories and recycling facilities.
The teenagers knew they were legally not supposed tobe working, and that it could jeopardize their asylum cases in immigrationcourt. Many, however, feel that they have little choice but to toil away. One15-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, hisparents had taken out a bank loan, using their house as collateral. If hedidn’t repay it, the family could lose its home.”
The migrant children usually find work throughtemporary staffing agencies (“oficinas” in Spanish), which gives businessowners a degree of cover and plausible deniability. Many work during the night,which often makes them too exhausted and sleep-deprived to pay attention inschool, causing more than a few to simply drop out and continue workingillegally. Some are also hurt on the job, but prefer not to seek medicalattention to avoid trouble.
Sanchez bemoans the reactive passivity of “governmentagencies charged with enforcing child labor laws [that] don’t look forviolations, though some officials say they aren’t surprised to hear it’shappening. Instead, those agencies wait for complaints to come to them, andthey almost never do.” Thus, “the companies benefit from the silence. It’s anopen secret no one wants exposed, least of all the teenagers doing the work.”
And, finally, the article contains a telling tidbitabout the impact of the above-described child labor on the labor market.Sanchez mentions “an indigenous Guatemalan labor leader” who “has heardcomplaints from adult workers in the fish-packing industry who say they’relosing their jobs to 14-year-olds.” Since these adult workers are almostcertainly illegal aliens, this snippet demonstrates that high levels ofunchecked illegal migration can have a negative impact even on other unlawfullypresent 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.