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Eagan Immigration fights back against the exploitation of underaged migrants

November 29, 2023
  • News

by Kasey Husk

For most Americans, the words “child labor” conjure up visions of the past, perhaps the blackened faces of young boys emerging from the coal mines or of little girls working at looms in New England textile mills. It is a world most Americans think of as living on only in black-and-white images from schoolbooks.

Most Americans, however, are wrong.

Child exploitation is an ongoing problem in the United States, but today its primary victims are the underaged and often unaccompanied migrants who’ve crossed the border from their home country in hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families. An investigative report by The New York Times released in February 2023 found that many of the largest employers in the United States are employing children as young as 12 years old, often working jobs so dangerous that minors are legally barred from working in the industry. These children face extraordinary economic pressures to support themselves, pay back debts, or support families back home. Sometimes, they must do all three. As such, unscrupulous companies – eager to find bodies to perform what is often difficult, unpleasant, or dangerous work for very little pay – turn a blind eye to their employees’ obvious youth.

At Eagan Immigration, we seek to help immigrants from all walks of life. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but Eagan immigration attorneys are experts at helping our clients identify any possible path to lawful permanent residence and citizenship in the United States. One such option, exclusive to those under the age of 21 years old, is Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. This petition, which is available to immigrant children legally classified as abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent, can lead to lawful permanent residency in the United States. But first, let’s take a closer look at child labor in the United States.

The exploitation of underage immigrants in the United States: a brief look at the problem

The United States government sought to end the exploitation of children’s labor in this country more than 80 years ago. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 – the defining piece of legislation that enacted strict federal child labor provisions – sought to ensure that when young people worked, they did so in a safe way that did not jeopardize their health, well-being, or educational opportunities. To that end, minimum age for employment were enacted (usually 14 years old for non-agricultural work), as well as restrictions on the time of day a young teen could work and how many total hours. Minors were entirely banned from some industries and jobs, as these were considered too dangerous.

However, an increasing number of children are entering the United States unaccompanied in recent years, often out of economic necessity or because they are fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries or a violent home life. Children are increasingly coming alone in part due to U.S. legal provisions that prevent unaccompanied children caught crossing the southern border from being sent back to Mexico alone, where they’d be at high risk of being trafficked or otherwise harmed if abandoned there. Instead, these minors are taken into custody in the United States, where they are usually held in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities until they can be released to an adult willing to take responsibility for them during the years-long immigration process. According to The New York Times’ reporting, children in the past were most often released to a parent or other relative already living in the United States.

Skyrocketing numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the border – more than a quarter million in the last two years alone – have placed increasing pressure on ORR administrators to quickly release children to a sponsor. As a result, investigators have found systemic failures in both the vetting of these “sponsors” and in keeping track of the children after they are placed with a caregiver, who is supposed to provide them with housing, food, clothing and school enrollment. Of the more than 250,000 unaccompanied children who entered the United States during those two years, about one-third – 85,000 – were unaccounted for just one month after their release. It’s a number that chills the blood.

So, what’s happening to these missing migrant children? In what The New York Times calls “the new economy of exploitation,” migrant children who come to the United States are increasingly winding up employed in some of the country’s most difficult and dangerous industries. Investigators found children as young as 12 years old working long hours in slaughterhouses, auto manufacturing plants, construction sites and virtually every other type of industry. Terrifyingly, at least a dozen children have been killed in accidents in these dangerous workplaces since 2017; countless more have been maimed. Moreover, the demands of the workplace often make it impossible for children to reasonably attend school, so many are forced to drop out or never enroll at all. Many of these children’s employers are household names, though such companies often insulate themselves from the problem by using staffing agencies to find workers rather than employing them directly. These immigrant children are almost always working without legal authorization – often with false papers, usually provided by an adult in their lives – even though older teens would likely qualify for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) while they await the disposition of their own immigration case. Applying for such permits, however, can be a daunting process for a teenager on their own in the United States.

Why are these children working? Child migrants are often under intense pressure to earn as much money as possible. In many countries, remittances from family members working abroad are vital to the family’s survival. Because of the special rules for minors, parents send their children to work in the United States with the expectation they send back every penny they can to support the rest of the family. In other cases, children join parents already living in the United States, but are forced to work to supplement the family’s income. If a child is released to a “sponsor” whom they do not actually know – a distant relative or even a stranger – they are at risk of having all their earnings confiscated by their “sponsor,” claiming it is for their upkeep. In still other situations, these children are effectively on their own entirely after being released to “sponsors” who have no capacity or intention to care for them. This leaves these children desperate to earn enough to pay for their own rent, food, clothing and, often, to pay back debts incurred on the journey to the United States.

How can seeking Special Juvenile Immigrant Status help?

Unmarried immigrants under the age of 21(18 in some states) can be granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) if they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent. These particularly vulnerable immigrants are deemed to need the protection of the juvenile court because of their tender age. If a child is granted this status, he or she can receive a work permit – enabling them to ultimately find safer, better-paying work in the United States at a reputable employer – and may ultimately be able to receive lawful permanent residency status and eventually citizenship in the United States. Having this status can give them access to resources that can help them thrive in the United States, as well as offering them increased protection from those who would exploit them.

While it is important to note that not all underaged immigrant employees will fall into this category, many children forced to support themselves in the United States will..

Such a child must secure a juvenile court order finding that the child is a dependent of the court or is in the custody of either a state agency or an individual appointed by the court, meaning a sponsor. The court must find that the child cannot be reunified with one or both of their parents because of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, and that it is not in the best interest of the child to return to their country of origin or last residence.

The minor will then submit that court order, as well as evidence of their age, a letter of consent from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (if they are in ORR custody), as well as Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant to USCIS. Processing time for SIJS petitions is faster than most other types of petitions; USCIS reports that a petitioner will generally have a response within six months. Once a minor is approved for SIJS status, he or she may be able to apply for a green card. One important thing to keep in mind, however, is that anyone who receives status in the United States through SIJS status will not be able to petition for any other family members in the future.

How Eagan Immigration Can Help

If the process of applying for status in the United States sounds complicated, you are not alone. Trying to navigate the immigration system is a daunting prospect for adults, much less for minors who are new to the United States. It can be hard to tell just by reading articles whether you or a loved one might qualify for a specific type of petition. This is where law firms like Eagan Immigration come in. At Eagan Immigration, our expert immigration attorneys will treat you with respect and compassion as they guide you through all your available options for immigration petitions. Eagan’s practice specializes in helping the most vulnerable among us, including abuse victims (VAWA self-petitions), victims of human trafficking (T Visas), victims of crime (U Visas), and children who’ve been abused, neglected, or abandoned (SJIS). We are here for you, every step of the way.

Wondering if Eagan Immigration can help you? Reach out to an immigration specialist today at 202-709-6439 for a free phone evaluation.