What About the Children? 

Within the global discourse surrounding illegal immigration and amidst the political debates lies a heartbreaking reality obscured from the view of most individuals. The devastating and harrowing reality of child trafficking and abuse. It is a dark part of society that thrives on desperation, greed, and indifference. Currently, the border crisis debate is focused on the possibility of violence encroaching on the lives of U.S. citizens or the idea that undocumented immigrants steal American jobs. Yes, we have an immigration crisis, and yes, something must be done. But what about the children?

A Central American child makes the dangerous trip to the American border, where he will be taken into the Unaccompanied Alien Children program. Photo: University of Nebraska-Omaha

Vulnerability of Migrant Children

An unaccompanied migrant child (UAC) is a minor child–most commonly from Central America–who has arrived in the United States or at the border without a parent or legal guardian and documentation. For many children, illegal immigration is not a choice but a desperate bid for survival. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) report found that most UACs are fleeing violent crime, gang violence and recruitment, and severe economic insecurity. These children leave their homes and families and embark on a dangerous journey to reach the border in search of safety. Because of this, they become easy targets for traffickers and exploiters who promise safety and opportunities. A study by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found that unaccompanied migrant children are particularly at risk, with many falling victim to trafficking schemes during their journeys. Additionally, the CRS also estimates that about 75-85% of unaccompanied migrant children who arrive at the U.S-Mexico border are victims of human trafficking.

The bottom line is that the border crisis is a humanitarian crisis. 

Smuggled across borders, these children become pawns in a game of profit and desperation. Many UACs are thrust into the hands of smugglers and traffickers who show no regard for their well-being. They are treated as mere commodities to be traded for financial gain. Once in the United States, these children find themselves trapped. Some are forced into labor, slaving away in fields or factories. Their childhoods were stolen from them in the pursuit of cheap labor. Others fall prey to sex traffickers, enduring unspeakable horrors.

The exploitation of these children thrives in the shadows, shielded by the complexities of immigration laws and the reluctance of victims to come forward. Fear of deportation, language barriers, and lack of trust in authorities create a breeding ground for exploitation to flourish. Additionally, the current political climate surrounding immigration often exacerbates the vulnerability of these children.

A Modern-Day Slavery 

A New York Times article published in February of 2023 showcased the immense challenges unaccompanied migrant children face. The article found hundreds of underage children working in the masses at slaughterhouses, roofing companies, and woodworking factories. Twelve-year-olds are currently working at some of the nation’s most demanding and dangerous jobs. Their hands, which aren’t even fully grown yet, are operating machinery large and dangerous enough to cut limbs and even end lives. The last time the Labor Department publicized deaths of migrant workers in 2017, over a dozen migrant children were killed. These deaths included a 16 year old crushed under a 35 ton tractor-scraper, and a 15 year old who fell 50 feet off of a roof in Alabama where he was laying down shingles. 

While children are suffering, we are benefitting from their labor. The Times found migrant children in Los Angeles stitching “Made in America” tags into J. Crew shirts. They spend their days baking dinner rolls sold at Walmart and Target, processing milk used in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and helping debone chicken sold at Whole Foods. Recently, middle schoolers were found making Fruit of the Loom socks in Alabama. In Michigan, children make auto parts used by Ford and General Motors. Migrant children are in such economic desperation that they take on jobs that no other person is willing to do precisely because it is back-breaking work. If adults don’t want to work these jobs, why would school-aged children? 

Photo is from a U.S. Department of Labor court filing, shows a Packers Sanitation Services Inc. employee at the JBS Beef Plant in Grand Island, Nebraska

Migrant children are a part of a new economy fueled by exploitation. The majority of them don’t even have a choice. They’re often under intense pressure to send money back home to their families, all while owing money to their sponsors for rent and living expenses. Annette Passalacqua, a former caseworker in Florida, said, “It’s getting to be a business for some of these sponsors.” Take Nery Cutzal, who was 13 years old when he met his sponsor over Facebook Messenger. Once Nery arrived in Florida, he found that he owed more than 4,000 dollars to his sponsor and had to find a place to live. Nery was sent constant text messages, often filled with threats and demanding more money. Nery states that he was promised a life in the United States where he would be taken care of and able to attend school. Instead, “it was all lies.” Nery contacted law enforcement, and his sponsor was found guilty of smuggling a child into the United States for financial gain. While many sponsors are well-intentioned, the reality is that thousands of migrant children are being placed in dangerous situations. Some will become victims of sex trafficking or forced labor. And many more will end up with irresponsible sponsors ill-equipped to ensure their welfare. For these vulnerable children, the nightmare is only beginning.

The Role of Criminal Networks 

Smuggling and trafficking migrants is now a billion-dollar business. Its profiters? Transnational criminal organizations, otherwise known as the Mexican cartels, control the border. These cartels take advantage of all migrants. According to Chief Patrol Agent John Modlin, now “nobody crosses without paying the cartels.” Every migrant who takes on the journey to cross the border is at risk of being abused by the cartels. Just imagine what it is like for unaccompanied children who have been placed in the hands of people who are viewed as a paycheck. With the influx of families and individuals crossing the border, cartels have turned the business of smuggling into a well-oiled machine. It is estimated cartels are making 13 billion dollars just through smuggling. Migrants face unspeakable horrors at the hands of cartels. It is estimated that as many as 60% of unaccompanied minors are kidnapped and exploited by the cartels. Other migrants are sexually abused and assaulted. Taking advantage of migrants’ desperation, cartels exploit and endanger them by controlling human smuggling routes and charging excessive fees to facilitate border crossings. The preying upon vulnerable people who are seeking refuge or economic opportunities not only enriches criminal networks but also coerces migrants into situations of exploitation.

Image by Politico

Failure to Protect 

Since 2021, there has been a remarkable influx of migrants reaching the southern border. Fiscal Year 2023 saw 2,475,669 encounters of migrants at the border. Of those, 137,275 were unaccompanied minor children. Fiscal Year 2024 alone has seen 46,289 UACs reach the southern border. 

The federal government is very much aware that these children are in the United States, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is responsible for ensuring that sponsors will support and protect them. Unfortunately, children are crossing the border faster than caseworkers can accurately vet sponsors and ensure they will do their jobs. Additionally, there is immense pressure to get children out of shelters as quickly as possible. HHS checks on all minors a month after living with their sponsors. Frighteningly enough, the Times found that in the past two years, HHS could not reach more than 85,000 children. Overall, immediate contact was lost with a third of migrant children. Where are these children? What dangers are they in right now? 

It could not be more evident that labor violations are occurring across most of the nation. In interviews done with the New York Times, more than 60 caseworkers estimated that about two-thirds of all unaccompanied migrant children ended up working full-time. The Labor Department is supposed to find and punish all labor violations. Unfortunately, inspectors in over a dozen states say their departments are so understaffed that they can barely respond to complaints. Opening original investigation is a rarity, and when the department does respond to tips on migrant children, it focuses on the outside staffing agencies that employ them and not the corporations where they spend most of their day performing grueling work. 

Migrant children are being failed left and right, and the rest of the world is disregarding them.

What’s Next? 

The fight against child trafficking, labor abuse, and illegal immigration requires urgent, collective action from governments, law enforcement, non-profits, and individuals. We must prioritize protecting vulnerable children and ensure perpetrators face the consequences. Kids in Need of Defense is an example of an organization that helps protect these defenseless kids. They provide legal support, psychosocial support, and advocacy to help ensure UACs receive appropriate treatment while in the U.S. immigration system. Collectively, we can advocate for companies and staffing agencies to face the consequences and urge HHS to prioritize safety over speed and take time to vet sponsors properly. Most importantly, we must speak out against these injustices and refuse to ignore children’s suffering. The immigration crisis is a complex issue with several root causes. Fixing this issue demands a shift in societal attitudes. It requires empathy and compassion, a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, and a commitment to upholding the dignity and rights of every child, regardless of their immigration status. Only through collaborative efforts can we ensure no migrant child is exploited and abused. 

About the Author: Sofia Santana is a PR and Social Media Intern at the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership. Sofia is a first year student at Saint Elizabeth University pursuing a degree in Communications and Political Science.