Migrant child labor in Michigan reveals injustices in immigration, employment, lawyer says


After a New York Times investigation exposed migrant child labor in Grand Rapids, Michigan immigrant rights advocates are pushing for change on the state and federal level.

The Feb. 25 article details how children who immigrated to the United States are working grueling hours in food packaging, manufacturing and construction. Anna Hill Galendez, supervising attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center’s worker rights team, says the investigation unearths failures in immigration and employment.

“I think at the heart of it, kids are really at the intersection of those two systems that have a lot of injustices,” she said.

The federal government plans to crackdown quickly with U.S. Rep. Hillary Scholten, D-Grand Rapids, calling the violation of labor laws “a massive failure.” But the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, worried swift action could create other issues, outlined 10 policy changes to help protect children and immigrants from exploitation.

“We’re concerned that poorly designed efforts to combat migrant child labor could actually push many undocumented adult breadwinners out of their jobs and leave children more vulnerable,” said Hill Galendez.

Related: Food processor exposed for illegally employing minors in Grand Rapids, says its reviewing practices

On the immigration side, the legal group is advocating for more support of children and families.

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

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

“That vulnerability is one of the ways that system failed them rather than creating pathways for them to come that are less expensive, more feasible and safer,” she said.

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

After that, Deveraux says there are “no supports” and “no follow up” for sponsors and children.

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

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

Related: Migrant children were found working in dangerous conditions. This Grand Rapids school hopes to stop that

Only immigrants with green cards who have lived in the United States for five years can qualify for benefits programs like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, once known as food stamps.

In Michigan, extending health care to those with green cards would provide insurance to 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 children’s health insurance.

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

“Because many immigrants are left working on the margins of labor protections, 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 cited for 34 health violations across 39 factories. This includes seven violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at Michigan facilities. The Times story also mentions migrant workers dying on the job or being seriously injured in other industries.

“We see these kinds of abuses related to hazardous working conditions, lots of injuries related to using heavy machinery in a fast-paced work environment and low wages across a number of different industries,” said Hill Galendez.

Related: Who is the Grand Rapids company in spotlight 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 carry $2.5 billion of spending power in the state.

Michigan is also increasingly turning to migrant workers to fill holes in the labor market.

Ranking among the top 10 states for temporary work visas through the H-2A agricultural program and H-2B program, Michigan’s visa requests have multiplied in recent years. An estimated 94,000 migrant agricultural workers and families live in Michigan, according to Migrant Legal Aid.

Most employment protections apply regardless of immigration status, but the immigrant rights center says agricultural workers are exempt from the right to overtime and the right to organize.

“Whether they’re undocumented and don’t have a work permit that leaves them vulnerable. If they have an employment visa, but the visa is tied to their employer, that leaves them vulnerable,” Hill Galendez said. “And then the ways in which our employment laws fall short of providing meaningful protection creates an environment, where there’s a lot of potential for exploitation.”

To address these gaps, the center suggests Congress modify the labor law, which allows children 12 and up to work in agriculture. Another policy change would be eliminating caps on child labor fines.

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

More on MLive:

Michigan leans on migrant workers amid labor shortage

Michigan needs more workers from abroad, but migrant worker authorization rare, costly

Immigration is saving Michigan from population loss, but state falls far behind national averages


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