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Why Are Underage Central Americans in US Factories?

Debt and migration spirals have turned asylum applications into a charade for exploitation.

· 7 min read
Why Are Underage Central Americans in US Factories?
Children and adolescents from Guatemala cross the Rio Bravo to ask for asylum in the United States. Photo by David Peinado/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Last month, the New York Times published an exposé of what happens to the unaccompanied minors who, thanks to their age and US legal protections, are being accepted at the US border. Mainly from Central America, 130,000 arrived last year; a higher number could arrive this year. Until they turn 18, they are required to attend school.

Instead, many have joined what the Times calls “a new economy of exploitation” that violates US labor laws. In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Times found a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl and many other underage migrants doing overnight shifts on food-packaging machinery. It found 12-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee and underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi, and North Carolina.

Based on interviews and court and inspection records, the Times has tabulated underage workers in all 50 states and in the supply chains of well-known US corporations including Walmart, General Motors, and Ben and Jerry’s. Many are working for temp labor agencies who turn a blind eye to fraudulent identity documents. If the kids are in school at all, they fall asleep in class.

The Biden administration has been quick to respond. It promises to punish the employers and tighten vetting of sponsors—the legally required guardians to whom the US government releases the kids, on condition that they go to school. Not all sponsors are a parent or other relative, and most are immigrants struggling to make ends meet. All too often, they are the first to demand that their newly arrived dependent help pay the rent and grocery bills.

That underage Central Americans find a full-time job as soon as possible is no secret to anyone who gets to know them. What surprised the Times reporter, Hannah Dreier, is how many are working in factories, next to conveyor belts and other fast-moving machinery. Over the last 10 years, child-migrant advocates have pressured the federal government to provide more and more safeguards to help juveniles cross the border, apply for asylum, and move out of detention. With all the safeguards, why have so many moved into prohibited occupations? Will more safeguards stop this?

Probably not, because most underage Central Americans are being sent to the US for precisely this purpose—to join the workforce as quickly as possible. Typically the people sending them on this mission are their own parents, who go deeply into debt to do so. For the kids, therefore, failing to earn money can have far worse consequences than a midnight shift or a job injury detected by a school nurse—it can mean losing the house or land their family has pledged as collateral.

I am an anthropologist who interviews migrants and their families in a sending hub in the Guatemalan highlands. I ask them about their debts. They give me a very different picture from media coverage of the dramas on the Mexican border. The underage workers found by the Times are 21st-century indentured servants. Their obligations to their families are why, paradoxical as this may sound, humanitarian reforms to protect them have had the opposite effect, of endangering more kids than they protect. Instead of discouraging families from sending their kids, the reforms have encouraged them to send more.

The road to this result, a recreation of the labor practices of the 19th century, has been paved by human-rights advocacy. In 1997, federal judges began to curtail how long the feds could detain border-crossers if they were under 18 or a parent with a child. In 2008, Congress passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. It was introduced by Senator Joe Biden, signed by President George W. Bush, and in 2014, blamed by the Obama administration for tying its hands, as underage migrants surged across the Mexican border.

The new law prohibited the feds from rapidly deporting minors to their homeland. It also gave them the right to a hearing. Smugglers learned that, if they recruited teenagers or adults with small children, border agents would be helpless to stop them. The migrants only had to say that they are afraid to go home. Asking for asylum became so easy and cheap that smuggling networks were able to slash prices, putting these within reach of a wider range of Central Americans. The number of teenagers coming to the border exploded. So did the number of adults with small children. Since country-of-origin identification documents are easy to falsify, juveniles became a passport for any older immigrant in need of one.

Applying for asylum is a lengthy process, with more than 1.8 million applicants in backlogged immigration courts. Once border crossers have achieved provisional standing, they are free to move anywhere in the US and go to work, on or off the books. This shaky ladder has become a strong incentive for Central Americans to entrust their teenagers to smuggling networks. The networks must pay transit taxes to the Mexican cartels which control the approaches to the US border. When a billing dispute arises, you can imagine how it is settled.

One contributor to this frightful situation the New York Times has treated with kid gloves—the asylum advocates who persuaded sympathetic media to bow to their assumptions. Groups like Kids in Need of Defense, the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, and the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights specialize in this realm; other broader-gauge organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild, are adding their voices.

One misperception encouraged by asylum advocates is that unaccompanied minors at the Mexican border are young children. This is true only in the legal sense that anyone under the age of 18 is a child. Only when a family smuggling deal falls apart do small children turn up alone. Most unaccompanied minors are teenagers. They are working-age in the society that produced them, and they are eager to prove themselves in a country they think will be more rewarding than their own.

A second misconception is that Central Americans coming to the US border are running away from murderous street gangs. Some are but most are not: according to survey research on motivations for going north, the wage differential looms far larger. For Central American migrants the gravest dangers they face are in Mexico, not back home where local connections and the usual cautionary rules reduce their vulnerability to predators. Whenever migrants are described as “desperate,” the next question should be—how desperate were they before they entrusted themselves to a smuggling gang?

A third questionable assumption is that Central Americans are better off in the US than at home. Yes, the difference in hourly wages is large, and remittances can make a big difference for households that receive them. But often only temporarily, because low-wage jobs in the US tend to create more problems than they solve.

One spiral is that, by sending their most energetic wage-earners to the US—often fathers and husbands at first, then ever younger teenagers—households make themselves dependent on remittances that soon become wobbly, then stop altogether. Far more families have been separated by this high-risk endeavor than were separated by the Trump administration. As remittances falter, everyone in the fractured household tries to come north, including high-need mothers and small children. Once everyone has come north and is paying US prices, the same dollar wages that had lots of buying power in Central America provide only a penurious existence.

Remittances generate other spirals. For example, they so inflate the price of real estate back home that only households receiving remittances can afford to buy land. This forces everyone else who needs to buy land to borrow money and join the migration stream. Far from alleviating poverty, remittances heighten income disparities and deepen feelings of relative deprivation. Even as they pull some Central American households out of poverty, they pull other households north.

Each of the above misconceptions—that unaccompanied Central American teenagers are young children fleeing violence and that the American Dream will come to their rescue—have justified a fourth questionable assumption: that Americans have a moral and legal obligation to accept asylum petitions from any youth or parent-child combo who says they are fleeing difficult circumstances.

Defining asylum this broadly blows a hole in the original definition, codified internationally after World War II. Until advocates expanded the meaning and persuaded sympathetic media to accept this expansion as an unquestionable human right, asylum was for people fleeing wars and political persecution. Now, with an ever-broader vision of who qualifies, advocates are encouraging an ever-wider range of people in low-income countries to try their luck.

If advocates want to be on the side of the angels, winning asylum for job-seekers will not get them there. A society’s ability to welcome foreigners is finite. Testing those limits undermines acceptance and generates hostility. In the case of the US and other magnet countries, politicians denouncing illegal immigration are winning more elections than they used to. The more elections they win, the more doors will close, not just for job-seekers but for applicants who truly are in danger. We saw this happen in 2017, when the Trump administration used chaotic episodes at the southern border to justify choking off the admission of carefully vetted war refugees from Muslim countries.

According to advocates, the precautionary principle—that some Central Americans truly are fleeing for their lives—requires the US to accept an application from any Central American who claims to be in peril. But the Times exposé of underage labor shows that we must add a second precautionary principle—that if we allow Central American families to send their juveniles to the US job market, this increases their exposure to the dangers of crossing Mexico and working in factories.

Assigning more lawyers, judges, social workers, and labor inspectors to hover over Central American families will not stop them from evading US labor laws. If prevented from working long hours, juveniles will take shorter shifts at more locations or vanish into the informal sector. If their earnings diminish, their parents will be tempted to send more kids north. They have debts to pay! This is the debt/migration spiral which has turned asylum applications into a charade for exploitation. Our collective line in the sand should be—nobody has the legal right to turn their kids into indentured laborers. Nor do US taxpayers have a moral obligation to pay for this travesty.

What about Central American migrants whose lives really are in danger? If asylum advocates want to save lives, they should work with governments and international agencies to set up safe spaces in sending countries. These could take the form of well-guarded but voluntary facilities, where endangered people can stay while they apply to countries that might accept them. Locating safety measures and investigations in sending countries will reduce many costs and risks. It will be easier to verify applicants’ identities and the dangers they face. It also will discourage economic migrants, who will not wait around while their story collapses. That will stop the flow of underage Central Americans through US border authorities into US factories.

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