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The Upsurge in Child Labor

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While it is the Republican Party ultimately pushing for the return of significant child labor to America, the problem is located most deeply within migrant communities, where government oversight is really not that great. There is pressure from members of both parties in Congress on Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the Department of Labor (presently without a confirmed Cabinet secretary thanks to Joe Manchin) to do more here.

The Labor Department on Thursday denounced a national surge in child labor, saying the agency’s inspectors had found thousands of violations and were investigating a slaughterhouse where a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala was killed this month.

The update followed a hearing on Wednesday in which lawmakers from both parties accused the Health and Human Services secretary, Xavier Becerra, of failing to protect migrant children from exploitation. His agency is tasked with releasing them to safe living conditions after they cross the border by themselves.

“There are some terrible things that are wrong,” Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat from California, told him. “At the end of the day, as H.H.S. secretary, the buck stops with you.”

Some 300,000 minors have come to this country alone since 2021, fueling a dramatic increase in migrant child labor. In an online report, the Labor Department announced an 87 percent increase in fines on employers in recent months. Companies including lumber mills and roofing contractors have been hit with $6.6 million in penalties.

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The Times found cases of 12-year-olds working construction, 13-year-olds washing hotel sheets and 15-year-olds packaging Cheerios overnight. One boy was released to a man in Florida who promised to put him in school but instead threatened him, demanding money. “Don’t mess with me,” the man wrote. “You don’t mean anything to me.”

These children were released to sponsors by the H.H.S. shelter system, which is supposed to pair children with responsible adults. As more and more minors began entering the country after President Biden took office, his administration ramped up pressure on the agency to place the children more quickly. It rolled back protections that had been in place for years, including some background checks, and Mr. Becerra urged staff members to move with the speed of a Henry Ford assembly line.

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce questioned Mr. Becerra for three hours about the rising number of children falling prey to exploitation.

Lawmakers also pressed him on instances of retaliation against whistle-blowers. Workers said they had tried to warn Mr. Becerra and the White House that migrant children were being sent to unsafe homes, only to be punished for speaking out. One worker said her building access was revoked during her lunch break after she raised alarms about a 14-year-old whose sponsor made him work off a debt.

This is unquestionably a lot more widespread than we think and the problem is clearly in the system that releases these kids to sketchy characters. An old story in the history of immigration but one that we should be able to stamp out.

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