Child Labor and the Broken Border


It sounds like something out of an earlier century. Tens of thousands of children in the U.S., spanning all 50 states, work full time, often on overnight shifts and in dangerous jobs. The adults in their communities — including executives at major companies like Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods, whose slaughterhouses are cleaned by the young teenagers — look the other way. Government officials, in state capitals and in Washington, allow it to happen.

For the past year and a half, my colleague Hannah Dreier has been reporting on the explosion of child labor among young migrants who have recently arrived in this country. Her latest story, which tells the story of Marcos Cux, a 15-year-old who was maimed last year in a chicken plant in rural Virginia run by Perdue, has just published in The Times Magazine.

The story exposes the human costs of this country’s broken immigration system. Over the past 15 years, entering the U.S. without legal permission has become easier, especially for children. A 2008 law, intended to protect children from harm on the Mexican side of the border, has meant that children can usually enter the country without documentation. As Hannah writes, “In the 15 years since, the carveout has become widely known in Central America, where it shapes the calculations of destitute families.”

Likewise, a 2015 ruling by a federal judge made it easier for children to enter the country with their families, as a recent New Yorker story by Dexter Filkins explained.

These policy changes aren’t the only reasons that migration — by adults, too — has recently increased. The collapse of Venezuela’s economy and a rise in global poverty during the Covid pandemic also play a role, as does a perception in Latin America that the Biden administration is less vigilant about border security than either the Trump or Obama administrations.

Whatever the causes, migrant children are arriving in a country that’s often unable, or at least unwilling, to protect them.

After unaccompanied children come to the U.S., authorities place them with so-called sponsors, adults who are supposed to care for the children and ensure they attend school. Frequently, though, the sponsors allow the children to work full time, knowing that their parents need the money that working children can wire home. The children use false documents to get the jobs, and employers accept them even when they’re obviously incorrect. In many communities, child labor has become an open secret.

Yet this modern version of child labor brings the same terrible costs that led this country to ban the practice in the early 20th century. Children are exhausted. Many never graduate high school and learn the skills necessary to find decent-paying work as adults. Some, like Marcos, suffer gruesome injuries while working jobs intended for adults.

In response to Hannah’s reporting, companies like Perdue and Tyson have said they do not tolerate child labor, but their actions suggest otherwise. And although the Biden administration responded to her initial story by increasing enforcement, it has so far fined only subcontractors for employing children, rather than brand-name companies.

I recommend you find the time this week to read Hannah’s story. It is wrenching, but it offers some reason for hope about Marcos’s future. It’s also part of a larger problem: The U.S. has allowed millions of people to enter the country in recent years and is failing to care for many of them.

  • Unlike other cities, Los Angeles is not facing a migrant crisis. The high cost of living and a lack of jobs have deterred many people from coming.

  • An errant Ukrainian missile, rather than a Russian attack, appears to have caused a deadly blast at a market in eastern Ukraine this month, a Times investigation found.

  • President Biden will urge countries to continue to support Ukraine in a speech at the U.N. today. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, will also address the gathering.

  • Donald Trump plans to speak to striking autoworkers in Detroit next week instead of attending the second Republican presidential debate.

  • David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who lost the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary to Dr. Mehmet Oz last year, plans to run again.

  • Jennifer Wexton, a House Democrat from Virginia, won’t seek re-election after she was diagnosed with a rare, incurable neurological condition.

With Congress beholden to the fossil fuel industry, the only path to reversing climate change is through executive action on oil and gas projects, Lydia Millet writes.

The blame for the chaos in the House falls not to the most extreme Republicans, but to Kevin McCarthy, who gave them political leverage, Michelle Cottle argues.

Here’s a column by Paul Krugman on Mitt Romney.

Plateau: You won’t lose weight on Ozempic forever. Here’s why.

Skin care: Vitamin C is probably good for you, but it’s hard to make it work the way it’s supposed to.

Lives Lived: Margaret Chung was the first known American woman of Chinese ancestry to earn a medical degree. Chung died in 1959, at age 69. (Her obituary is part of Overlooked, a Times series about the lives of remarkable figures from history.)

N.F.L.: The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns, 26-22, despite just one touchdown from their offense.

Monday Night Football: A stingy defense helped the 2-0 New Orleans Saints stifle the Carolina Panthers on the road.

Investigation: Michigan State told the football coach Mel Tucker it intended to fire him after sexual harassment allegations.

Recurring theme: The tennis star Coco Gauff embodies perhaps the biggest story in sports — the rise of female athletes.

Art and science: Some of the great paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries are losing their brilliance. Many artists of the era, including Van Gogh, Munch and Picasso, favored a paint known as cadmium yellow, whose bold, lemony hue has become faded and chalky. A team of researchers, studying samples from Joan Miró paintings of the 1970s, found that the paint was doomed by flaws at the atomic level.


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