Op-Ed: To end child labor violations in Virginia, we must fix our broken immigration system

A hiring sign is displayed at a restaurant in Chicago, Monday, March 11, 2024. On Thursday, April 25, 2024, the Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits last week. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

By Maria Hernandez Pinto

May 15, 2024

After school, fourteen-year-old Accomack County resident Marcos Cux gets ready for a grueling overnight shift at a chicken slaughterhouse run by Perdue Farms. His tasks include scrubbing blood and fat off steel parts with a pressurized hose that sprays 130-degree water.

During one of these overnight shifts, Marcos’ arm was caught in a conveyor belt that ripped through layers of tendons and muscle. Three surgeries and six months of physical therapy later, he was able to move his arm again.

Desperate for income, Marcos found himself back in the workforce later that year, this time working in an industrial chicken warehouse also owned by Perdue Farms. He now earns less to search the warehouse floor for dead birds, picking up, on average, 120 each 12-hour shift.

Marcos is one of the 300,000 unaccompanied minors that have entered the country since 2021.

He emigrated alone at thirteen to support his family back home in Guatemala, because his parents knew that unaccompanied minors are more likely to be allowed entry than adults arriving at the border.

This influx of unaccompanied children arriving in the U.S. has become a pipeline for employers seeking cheap labor.

In recent months, several companies operating in Virginia have come under fire for violating child labor laws. Last week, a Department of Labor investigation found that Fayette Janitorial Service LLC illegally employed fifteen underage workers at a Perdue Farms plant in the Eastern Shore. The Department of Labor charged Fayette Janitorial Service LLC with nearly $650,000 in civil penalties and a court-ordered mandate to no longer employ minors.

The Department of Labor also cited four Northern Virginia Jersey Mike’s Subs for breaking child labor laws. The investigation found over a dozen employees under sixteen years old worked beyond legally mandated work hours and operated power-driven meat slicers, a hazardous occupation under federal law. The Jersey Mike’s Subs franchise operator JM Burke LLC paid over $108,000 in civil penalties for the violations.

This is not an isolated problem; child labor is a national issue that demands our immediate attention.

The number of minors employed in violation of child labor laws nationally rose by 283% between 2015 and 2022, with a 94% increase in minors illegally employed in hazardous occupations. Black and Brown migrant children have been among the most affected.

Our broken immigration system also makes U.S. citizen children more susceptible to these child labor violations with as many as half a million U.S. citizen children left to fend for themselves after a parent faces deportation.

Some states are taking matters into their own hands, proposing state-level legislation to tighten their policies. These are important, especially considering the concerning wave of states loosening their child labor laws across the country. In the past two years, at least 10 states have introduced or passed laws rolling back child labor protections. A bill proposed in Iowa generated national headlines last year for being particularly extreme. It proposed lifting restrictions to allow children as young as fourteen to work in meat coolers, teens as young as fifteen to work on assembly lines, and permit sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to serve alcohol.

While protective state-level policies are a necessary step, even migrant children residing in states with the most restrictive child labor laws face injury.

In the rare instance that a complaint is filed by the Department of Labor, investigations are not likely to work out in favor of the workers. Auditors often fail to catch violators as they conduct oversight during standard work hours, missing late afternoon and overnight shifts where child labor violations most often occur.

Stricter state-level labor laws and more investigations by the Department of Labor are welcome solutions. However, to truly bring an end to this crisis and protect those most impacted, Black and Brown migrant children, we must address the root cause of this issue: our broken immigration system. We must re-evaluate and reform policies that lead to family separation and instead develop humane and compassionate alternatives to detention that prioritize family unity and child welfare.

More than 3 million cases are pending in the U.S. immigration court system, a backlog that has more than tripled since the start of 2017. There are more immigrants in the U.S. with a pending immigration case than people living in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city. This prolonged waiting period, often spanning several years, prevents parents from legally reuniting with their children.

Immigrant detention centers further compound the issue, separating families and pushing migrant children into the arms of employers willing to exploit them. By dismantling these centers and decreasing barriers to entry, we can keep families united and help prevent children from being forced into dangerous workplaces.

We must recognize that issues of child labor, immigration reform, and asylum protection are interconnected. We cannot address child labor violations without protecting the well-being of immigrant families. To truly tackle these challenges, we must stand united in advocating for comprehensive immigration reforms that prioritize the safety of all, especially our most vulnerable— children.

  • Maria Hernandez Pinto

    A fellow at the Im/migrant Well-being Scholar Collaborative, is a non-profit professional working at the intersection of immigrants', workers’, and women’s rights.

CATEGORIES: LABOR

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