New York Times exposes exploitation of immigrant children in the US workforce

Early last week, the New York Times unveiled a bombshell scoop, but it was the wrong kind of bombshell to become the kind of multi-day story that overtakes the news cycle. You see, apparently it just isn’t that big of a deal if migrant children are being widely exploited — working in slaughterhouses and factories in violation of child-labor laws — if the problem can all be traced back to the Biden administration’s policy decisions. It’s strange how a story with so many ingredients of hot-button news — illegal immigration, kids, exploitative employers, abuse, retribution against whistleblowers — can get so little reaction when the upshot is that a Democratic president and his team screwed up.

New York Times investigative reporter Hannah Dreier reported that the Biden administration had ignored and downplayed repeated signs that migrant children were being widely exploited — “working overnight in slaughterhouses, replacing roofs, operating machinery in factories — all in violation of child labor laws.” It was and is a massive, shocking scoop:

Over the past two years, more than 250,000 migrant children have come alone to the United States. Thousands of children have ended up in punishing jobs across the country — working overnight in slaughterhouses, replacing roofs, operating machinery in factories — all in violation of child labor laws, a recent Times investigation showed. After the article’s publication in February, the White House announced policy changes and a crackdown on companies that hire children.

But all along, there were signs of the explosive growth of this labor force and warnings that the Biden administration ignored or missed, The Times has found.

Again and again, veteran government staffers and outside contractors told the Health and Human Services Department, including in reports that reached Secretary Xavier Becerra, that children appeared to be at risk. The Labor Department put out news releases noting an increase in child labor. Senior White House aides were shown evidence of exploitation, such as clusters of migrant children who had been found working with industrial equipment or caustic chemicals.

This should have been, and should be, an epic year-defining scandal. Americans have intense disagreements about illegal immigration and what should be done in the situations of unaccompanied minors who cross the border. But no one with a lick of sense, an ounce of compassion, or an iota of respect for the law would contend that exploiting those poor kids in dangerous workplaces is the right answer.

Any way you slice it, this outcome is just about the worst — much worse than a system that catches migrant teenagers and puts them on flights or other transportation, returning them to family members in their home countries.

In fact, the Times found some evidence that the Biden administration punished lower-ranking government officials who noticed and attempted to call out the problem:

Jallyn Sualog was the most senior career member of the H.H.S. division responsible for unaccompanied migrant children when Mr. Biden took office. She had helped build the program after the passage of the 2008 law and, as a lifelong Democrat, had celebrated Mr. Biden’s win.

But soon, she said, she began to hear reports that children were being released to adults who had lied about their identities, or who planned to exploit them.

She warned her bosses in a 2021 email, “If nothing continues to be done, there will be a catastrophic event.” She continued to email about situations she described as “critical” and “putting children at risk.”

Concerned that no one was listening, Ms. Sualog filed a complaint in the fall of 2021 with the H.H.S. Office of Inspector General, the agency’s internal watchdog, and requested whistle-blower protection. She also took the unusual step of speaking with congressional staffers about her worries.

“I feel like short of protesting in the streets, I did everything I could to warn them,” Ms. Sualog said of the administration. “They just didn’t want to hear it.”

In late 2021, she was moved out of her position. She filed a complaint with the federal office responsible for enforcing whistle-blower protection rules, arguing that she had been illegally retaliated against.

Last fall, the Office of the Inspector General released a report that discussed Ms. Sualog’s case and several demotions and dismissals at the agency that “may have risen to the level of whistle-blower chilling.”

Ms. Sualog settled with the agency, which agreed to pay her legal fees, and resigned last month.

You can’t accuse the New York Times of downplaying the story or hiding it because it embarrasses the administration; the story ran on page A1 on April 18. A lot of people in the conservative world contend that the Times is a public-relations firm for the Democratic Party and the Biden administration, and as this story demonstrates, that’s not quite true. Every now and then, the Times — and quite a few other mainstream or liberal news organizations — discover and run stories that embarrass the hell out of the administration.

But the reaction to this story, or lack of a reaction, does illustrate the left-of-center groupthink at work in most of the mainstream media. MSNBC ran a short segment interviewing Dreier. The right-of-center news world — National Review, the Washington Examiner, Fox News, Breitbart, the Washington Free Beacon, the Daily Caller, Townhall — ran short articles about the accusations in the Times report. The Center for Immigration Studies certainly noticed. (There also may have been others that just didn’t come up in my Google search this morning.)

And credit Vanity Fair for the blistering headline, “It’s Getting Harder to Tell the Difference Between Biden’s and Trump’s Border Failures.”

But Dreier’s scoop was effectively a one-day story; the widespread exploitation of teenagers who crossed the border illegally, entered U.S. government custody, and who were released to people who exploited them as cheap labor simply wasn’t important enough to turn into a cause that took over the news cycle.

The rest of the political world, which had made the treatment of migrant families at the border a crusade during the Trump administration, largely yawned. (Recall that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused the Trump’s administration of running “concentration camps.”) Many people who reacted with white-hot rage at the adoption of a policy of family separation in the previous administration haven’t issued any statements in response to this administration’s policy of malignant neglect. The Times article detailed how discussion of the problem had risen to Susan Rice, the White House head of domestic policy.

In the past week or so, we’ve seen a lot of discussion of the Iowa state legislature attempting to loosen the restrictions on where 14- and 15-year-olds can work, and a viral video on TikTok showing a 13-year-old working at Chik-fil-A. (I think most of us can draw a distinction between whether it’s appropriate for a teenager to work in the fast-food or service industry, and whether it’s appropriate for a teenager to work cleaning a meatpacking plant.)

But there’s a strange lack of interest in a bombshell report that sounds like something out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Dreier’s previous reporting showed how a 15-year-old was working the night shift at a Hearthside Food Solutions plant in Grand Rapids, Mich. (The abuse of child labor is occurring in all 50 states, red and blue.)

We can argue about why so many unaccompanied children have come across the border in the past two years — clearly, our existing policies are not deterring parents from sending their children across the border — and we can argue about what U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement should do with so many more migrant children and teenagers than our systems are designed to handle.

But this is one of those stories that doesn’t provide any easy angle to blame Republicans. This widespread exploitation of teenagers is the result of the policies and decision-making of a Democratic administration. And I think news stories that don’t offer a “blame Republicans” angle bore a lot of people who need the dopamine rush of knowing that all problems in this world can be traced back to Donald Trump, or Ron DeSantis, or Kevin McCarthy, or Mitch McConnell.

In the end, a lot of people who say they care about the abuse of migrants really mean that they care about the abuse of migrants during a Republican presidency. Once a Democrat is in office, they just assume everything is going fine. After all, Democrats are the good guys.

Why is America witnessing this humiliating outrage? Because a lot more kids and teenagers came across the border than our border-security and immigration-enforcement systems could handle. It was not, as President Biden initially insisted, a routine seasonal pattern: “It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year.” With way more children and teenagers than any system could reasonably track, the U.S. government system of vetting and keeping track of who was taking custody of these migrant children broke down.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, as of February 2023, out of 108,981 “safety and well-being calls” conducted for children discharged from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 17,926 sponsors could not be reached. Jennifer Cannistra, the deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, stated in a letter to Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, “There are a number of reasons why a sponsor may not answer a phone call, including not recognizing the phone number or not wishing to speak with government officials.”

It seems quite likely that at least some of those 17,926 sponsors who could not be reached are among those who put these kids in these exploitative jobs.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post