Teens – who cross border – suffer from illegal working conditions in U.S. suburban factories

A report compiled by Eric Ruark, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), revealed that “… only 27% of workers hired by agribusinesses are American citizens, 21% are green card holders, around 1% are part of the guest worker program … and a whopping 51% are unauthorized immigrants”.

This week Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), released a recent photo of inside the federal holding area for immigrant children in Donna, Texas. He did this despite White House orders to bar the Press from reporting on these facilities.

Today, these children are sleeping on the floor after being jammed into coyote trucks or crowded buses that brought them close to America, a 1,900-mile trip from Guatemala to the Mexican border.

In tomorrows to come, they will be paying back some $3,000 each to smugglers, who managed their travel. Most will work in the United States long hours at low pay for years, remitting back home part of their earnings to satisfy high interest loans their families incurred to send them north.

Child exploitation by U.S. employers has been ignored by our government for decades. Only a handful of companies have been prosecuted for violating immigrant labor laws in recent years, and E-verify is ignored.  

To provide cheap labor, these Central America children will be shunted to small towns around this nation in coming weeks. Like their predecessors, most will go to school during the day, and then work long shifts in agricultural and other factories at night.

Employers claim that paying any of their workers a livable wage would mean that the cost of food for American consumers would skyrocket. In response to this claim, “…a 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that an increase in farm workers’ wages of 40% would result in an annual rise in household spending by the American consumer of just $16.”

That amounts to 4.4 cents a day per person. Most of the cost of food is not labor, but profits and interest payments by processors, middlemen and retailers.

Companies may be getting richer from low wages, but what about the children? Pro Publica’s Melissa Sanchez recently reported on their struggle in Illinois. She focused on Garcia, who came here illegally from Guatemala:

It’s a little before 6 a.m. and still dark when Garcia gets home from work this October morning. The apartment where he lives with his aunt and uncle is silent. They’ve already left for their own jobs.

After nine hours hosing down machinery at a food processing plant, Garcia is tired and hungry. But he has less than an hour to get ready for high school, where he is a junior. He quickly showers, gets dressed and reheats some leftover chicken soup for a meal he refers to as dinner. Then he gulps down some coffee, brushes his teeth and walks outside to catch the school bus waiting near the edge of the sprawling apartment complex.

This is not a scene from a third world country, Sanchez explained.

Here in the Chicago suburb of Bensenville, and in places like it throughout the country, Guatemalan teenagers like Garcia spend their days in class learning English (EL) and Algebra and Chemistry. At night, while their classmates sleep, they work to pay debts to smugglers and sponsors, to contribute to rent and bills, to buy groceries and sneakers, and to send money home to the parents and siblings they left behind.

There are already many tens of thousands of young people who came to this country from Central America in recent years. Some were unaccompanied minors, as we are see now in droves at our southern border. Others were with a parent, or an impostor planning to traffic them.

Around Urbana-Champaign, the home of the University of Illinois, school district officials say children and adolescents lay shingles, wash dishes and paint off-campus university apartments, Sanchez said.

In New Bedford, Massachusetts, an indigenous Guatemalan labor leader has heard complaints from adult workers in the fish-packing industry, who say they’re losing their jobs to 14-year-olds.

In Ohio, teenagers work in dangerous chicken plants.

ProPublica interviewed 15 teenagers and young adults in Bensenville alone, who said they work or have worked as minors inside more than two dozen factories, warehouses and food processing facilities in the Chicago suburbs – usually through temporary staffing agencies. Nearly all were situations where federal and state child labor laws would explicitly prohibit their employment, Sanchez explained:

Some began to work when they were just 13 or 14, 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. Garcia, who is 18 now, was 15 when he got his first job at an automotive parts factory.

The teenagers use fake IDs to get the jobs through temporary staffing agencies that accept the papers they are handed, ignoring E-Verify.

“Honestly, I think almost everyone in the system knows that most of the teens are coming to work and send money back home,” explained Maria Woltjen, executive director and founder of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a national organization that advocates for immigrant children in court. “They want to help their parents.”

Garcia was 15 when he was released from border facilities, and he had debts to pay, including the $3,000 he owed for the “coyote” who brought him across Mexico from Guatemala. He told ProPublica that 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.

Within a week of arriving in Illinois, Garcia went to the factory where his aunt and uncle worked, making auto parts.

He was hired on a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, cleaning newly-made screws and bolts with an air blow gun. Workers wore safety goggles to protect their eyes from the shards of metal that blew in their faces. It was a dirty job, Sanchez said.

Garcia was not directly employed by the factory. Instead, he got the job through an “oficina,” the word Spanish-speaking immigrants use to describe the dozens of temporary staffing agencies that employ hundreds of thousands of workers in Illinois.

Federal law requires that children 14 and 15 can only work in jobs that are not dangerous factory settings:

If you are 14 or 15 years old, you can only work outside of school hours. The federal youth employment requirements limit the times of day and the number of hours that you may work as well. You may not work:

    • More than 3 hours on a school day, including Friday;
    • More than 18 hours per week when school is in session;
    • More than 8 hours per day when school is not in session;
    • More than 40 hours per week when school is not in session; and
    • Before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m. on any day, except from June 1 through Labor Day, when nighttime work hours are extended to 9:00 p.m.

Despite these regulations, 15-year-old Garcia was working 12-hour, overnight shifts, often six days a week.

Only two of the 15 children interviewed by ProPublica said their age had ever interfered with their attempts to get hired, and even then, they ultimately found jobs.

Mark Denzler, president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, said that staffing agencies are the employer of record and “are required by law to properly vet job candidates including verification for employment.”

He said his group “strongly encourages all manufacturers and employers to abide by all federal and state laws especially as it applies to child labor laws. We do not condone violations of these laws.”

But the violations continue against these immigrants, as some employers turn a blind eye and hide behind staffing agencies.

After a month at the auto parts factory, Garcia found a new job cleaning food-processing machinery where he could work 8 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. But once he enrolled in school, he slept just three, maybe four hours each afternoon, Sanchez said.

Students in EL courses already face challenges, and working at night makes paying attention even more difficult. Garcia’s teacher recalls how he was injured on the job. She took him to the nurse with a gashed hand. Apparently, a high pressure hose used for cleaning ripped through his skin to the bone.

He was afraid that if he admitted he got hurt on the job, he’d be in trouble for using a fake ID, or his aunt would go to jail for allowing him to work. Garcia never sought additional medical care. Almost a year later, he said the bone still feels dislocated.

ProPublica reported three other teens who said they’d been injured at work.

Two were already 18 when they got hurt, though both had worked since they were 16 in jobs that, under federal law, should have been off limits because they are considered hazardous. One fractured his heel when a fork dolly he was pulling slid over his foot at a meatpacking plant. The other cut his thumb with a knife at a packaging facility; a supervisor took him to an urgent care facility to get stitches.

Federal records show child labor sanctions against only one Illinois factory over the past five years, and none involving temp agencies.

While the Illinois Labor Department only conducts random audits of employers’ payroll and other records, the audits are based only on paperwork, which is easily counterfeited.

Related: Atlanta Massacre Shows Border, Interior Security Needed

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