Child Labour Day: Back to the 19th Century


Shortly after Hannah Dreier joined The Times as an investigative reporter last year, she mentioned something that shocked her editor, Kirsten Danis. While Hannah had been reporting a 2019 series about immigrant teenagers on Long Island falsely accused of being gang members— stories that won a Pulitzer Prize — she noticed that some of the young teenagers worked overnight shifts at a cookie factory.
Kirsten’s surprised reaction made Hannah wonder if there was another story to do. “It’s sort of an open secret among people in the immigration world that many of these kids end up in jobs that violate child labor laws,” Hannah told me. “I realized I had been so focused on border and detention policies that I had neglected to report on children’s experiences once they’re actually living in the U.S.”

Hannah has spent the past 10 months reporting the story, and she spoke with more 100 child workers in 20 states for it. This weekend, The Times published her exposé.
“Migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country,” Hannah writes. Many children have worked on products for big-name companies, including Whole Foods, Walmart, J. Crew and Frito-Lay. “It’s not that we want to be working these jobs,” said Kevin Tomas, 15, who was recently stacking cereal boxes at a factory. “It’s that we have to help our families.”

What to do?

Some parts of the solution seem straightforward: If federal, state and local authorities put a higher priority on enforcing existing laws, they could reduce child labor. One part of the answer may involve better oversight of the so-called sponsor families — akin to foster families — with whom the children are often living. Companies could also play a role by cracking down on contractors and more rigorously checking worker identification. As Hannah said, the illegal use of child labor is an open secret.

But solving the underlying problem — the recent surge of migration by both children and adults and the chaos created by it — is more vexing.

Over the past few years, the number of child migrants entering the U.S. has soared for a combination of reasons. Parts of Latin America, including Honduras and Venezuela, have fallen into disarray, causing more people to leave these countries. The Covid pandemic exacerbated the desperation.
The U.S. has responded with policies that are intended to help, and sometimes do, but also can create an additional incentive for migration. Starting in 2008, for example, the U.S. made it easier for Central American children who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border to remain here and live with sponsor families. The policy kept children from otherwise being stranded in Mexico — but also gave desperate parents additional reason to send their children north in search of a better life.

Donald Trump, of course, tried to crack down on migration, including through harsh policies that separated children from their parents. President Biden ended some of those policies but has struggled to find an ideal solution.
Migration surged almost as soon as he took office, partly because migrants believed Biden’s election meant that the U.S. would admit people even if they did not have legal permission to come. Last year, the number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. rose to 130,000, three times what it was five years earlier, Hannah explains. The number of adults entering the country also spiked in 2021 and 2022.
Nightshifts Children being processed by the U.S. Border Patrol in Roma, Texas. In the past two years alone, 250,000 unaccompanied minors have come into the country.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
The Biden administration initially did little to discourage this increase. After harsh criticism from Republicans and complaints from some Democratic officials who said their cities and states could not handle the influx, the administration has recently made it harder for undocumented immigrants to enter the U.S. The new policies have begun having their intended effect, but now many liberals are criticizing the administration as heartless: More immigrants may be stranded in Mexico, and fewer will be able to leave the troubles in their home countries.
The continuing debate has highlighted the vexing nature of immigration policy. The federal government needs to choose between turning people away and effectively encouraging a surge of unplanned immigration.



Carolina Yoc, back right, worked on math problems after a night shift at a Grand Rapids food plant. The 13-year-old girl sitting next to her said she also worked nights at a factory.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times


Migrant children were among the day laborers who gathered on a school day in Homestead, Fla., to find roofing, landscaping or other work.Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times




A handwritten ledger, in Spanish, of Nery Cutzal’s debts to his sponsor, including money for tacos and clothes. The child owed more than USD 4000, plus interest. Court information has been redacted for privacy.



A selfie taken by a 17-year-old at a Hearthside facility in Grand Rapids. She said older men at the factory sometimes harassed her.


Whether the country should return to 19th-century patterns of grueling work shifts for children seems less complicated. You can read Hannah’s story — and see photos by Kirsten Luce — here.


From left: Oscar Nambo Dominguez, 16, was crushed last year under an earthmover near Atlanta. Edwin Ajacalon, 14, was hit by a car while delivering food on a bike in Brooklyn. Juan Mauricio Ortiz, 15, died on his first day of work for an Alabama roofing company when he fell about 50 feet.

The Middlemen are sought after