Sunday, April 21, 2024

Migrant Child Labor Debate in Congress Becomes Mired in Immigration Fight

The revelation that migrant children are being exploited for cheap labor in the United States prompted bipartisan outrage and calls to action on Capitol Hill. Congress has not addressed the issue, and legislation to crack down on companies’ use of child labor has gone nowhere.

The issue has little Republican backing, while Democrats’ efforts are to increase funding for federal agencies to provide more support services to migrant children crossing the border alone.

While Congress prepares to head into a bitter debate over immigration policy in the coming days, Republicans and Democrats have retreated to their opposite corners, abandoning whatever initial hope there may have been for tackling the issue of child labor in a bipartisan way.

The Times reported in February that as the number of children crossing the southern border has skyrocketed to record levels, many are taking on dangerous jobs that violate labor laws, including factories, slaughterhouses, and construction sites.

Democrats, looking to avoid siding with Republicans in their fight against Biden’s immigration policies, have quieted their criticism of the government’s handling of the situation, instead directing their anger at the companies that employ migrant children. This has resulted in the political space vanishing in Congress to help protect children from exploitation.

“I know it’s complicated, but this really needs to be about protecting kids, and not about the bigger politics of the border,” Janet Murguía, president of the Latino civil rights advocacy organization UnidosUS, said in an interview, accusing Republicans of “playing politics” and Democrats of being “skittish” in confronting the problem. “It’s a no-brainer. It should be easy to find bipartisan support on this.”

The Biden administration has taken steps to change some of its policies and practices since the explosion in child migrant labor has been revealed. The Health and Human Services Department, which is responsible for placing unaccompanied migrant children in the care of adults, has built a team to support children after they leave government shelters and provide case management and legal services to those children.

The Labor Department and Homeland Security have provided initiatives to enhance the enforcement of child labor laws and address exploitation crimes.

Still, there is little sign of meaningful momentum to enact legislation that could stop the exploitation of child migrant workers. Republicans and Democrats alike spoke out against the issue, sending letters to Cabinet secretaries demanding to know how unaccompanied minors end up filling dangerous jobs.

When Congress held its first hearing on the issue, the subject was overtaken by arguments over a border security bill. Republicans have used the topic to condemn the Biden administration’s overall immigration policies.

In the Senate, Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said last week that he was working to bring in senior officials to testify about migrant child exploitation. Durbin was one of the first Democrats to send letters to the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services demanding to know the steps to protect these children.

Several Democrats have sent letters to big-name companies like Ford and Ben and Jerry’s, asking them what steps they have taken to ensure they do not employ minors in the future. Other Democrats have held their public fire as the companies pressure lawmakers to give them more time.

The New York Times