Migrant child labor in Michigan exposes immigration and employment injustices, says lawyer

After a New York Times investigation uncovered immigrant child labor in Grand Rapids, immigrant rights advocates in Michigan are pushing for state and federal changes.

The February 25 article describes how children who have immigrated to the United States spend grueling hours in food packaging, manufacturing and construction. Anna Hill Galendez, senior counsel for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center’s labor law team, says the investigation uncovered immigration and employment failures.

“I think at its core, kids are really at the intersection of these two systems, which have a lot of injustices,” she said.

The federal government is planning a swift crackdown with US Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Grand Rapids, who is calling the violation of labor laws “a massive failure.” But the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, concerned that acting quickly could create other problems, outlined 10 policy changes to protect children and immigrants from exploitation.

“We worry that ill-planned efforts to address migrant child labor could actually put many undocumented adult breadwinners out of work and leave children more vulnerable,” Hill Galendez said.

Related: Food processing company exposed for illegally employing minors in Grand Rapids, says its screening practice

On the immigration side, the rights group is campaigning for more support for children and families.

A record 129,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the US last year — up from nearly 70,000 in 2019, according to the US Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Some take on debt or rely on smugglers to make the “dangerous journey” overland, says Ana Raquel Devereaux, lead attorney for the center’s unaccompanied children program.

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“This vulnerability is one of the ways the system has let them down instead of creating ways for them to come that are less expensive, more viable and more secure,” she said.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement then places unaccompanied children with “sponsors” – usually relatives – or temporary foster families to get them out of border detention. In the last fiscal year, nearly 700 minors were released to Michigan sponsors, most of whom ended up in Kent and Wayne counties, federal data shows.

After that, Deveraux says there is “no support” and “no follow-up” for sponsors and children.

As a result, some minors work long hours to pay bills, send money back to their families, or pay off debts. Instead of going to school, 13-year-old Jose Vasquez told the New York Times he works 12-hour shifts six days a week at a commercial egg farm in Michigan to pay the rent.

“It’s not just about these children who are going through this particular system (Office of Refugee Resettlement), but all immigrant families who have a greater need for social safety nets,” Deveraux said. “For example, the state of Michigan doesn’t provide for undocumented families, so we’d like to see more of that to reduce the need to find these dangerous ways to make ends meet.”

Relatives: Children of migrants have been found at work in dangerous conditions. This school in Grand Rapids is hoping to prevent that

Only immigrants with green cards who have lived in the United States for five years are eligible for benefit programs such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps.

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In Michigan, extending health coverage to those with green cards would cover between 3,000 and 4,000 children, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy. Michigan is one of 16 states that has not eliminated the five-year waiting period for child health insurance.

Hill Galendez says the labor system also often fails to protect immigrant workers.

“Because many immigrants work on the fringes of labor protection, we really need our state and federal labor standards and enforcement agencies to better serve all immigrant workers,” she said.

Hearthside Foods, a food packaging factory spotlighted by The New York Times, has been subpoenaed for 34 health violations at 39 factories. These include seven Occupational Safety and Health Administration violations at Michigan facilities. The Times story also mentions migrant workers who die on the job or are seriously injured in other industries.

“We see this type of abuse associated with hazardous working conditions, many injuries associated with using heavy machinery in a fast-paced work environment, and low wages across a number of different industries,” Hill Galendez said.

Related: Who is in the spotlight of the Grand Rapids enterprise for migrant children working in dangerous conditions?

About 40% of Michigan’s 683,000 immigrants are noncitizens, census data shows, with about 108,000 being undocumented immigrants who have $2.5 billion in purchasing power in the state.

Michigan is also increasingly turning to migrant workers to fill gaps in the job market.

Ranked in the top 10 states for temporary work visas through the H-2A agriculture program and H-2B program, Michigan has multiplied in recent years. An estimated 94,000 migrant agricultural workers and families live in Michigan, according to Migrant Legal Aid.

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Most job protections apply regardless of immigrant status, but the Immigrant Rights Center says farm workers are exempt from the right to overtime and the right to organize.

“Whether they’re undocumented and don’t have work permits, which makes them vulnerable. If they have a work visa but the visa is tied to their employer, that leaves them vulnerable,” Hill Galendez said. “And then the way our labor laws don’t offer meaningful protections creates an environment where there’s a lot of potential for exploitation.”

To fill these gaps, the center is proposing that Congress amend the Labor Code, which allows children as young as 12 to work in agriculture. Another change in policy would be the elimination of caps on fines for child labor.

“We truly believe that protecting the labor rights of all immigrant workers is the best way to create safer and healthier workplaces,” Hill Galendez said.

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