Child Labor and Immigration
Mostly a policy lament.
Via WaPo: A cleaning company illegally employed a 13-year-old. Her family is paying the price.
At 13, she was too young to be cleaning a meatpacking plant in the heart of Nebraska cattle country, working the graveyard shift amid the brisket saws and the bone cutters. The cleaning company broke the law when it hired her and more than two dozen other teenagers in this gritty industrial town, federal officials said.
[Since the U.S. Department of Labor raided the plant in October, Packers Sanitation Services, a contractor hired to clean the facility, has been fined for violating child labor laws. The girl, meanwhile, has watched her whole life unravel.
First, she lost the job that burned and blistered her skin but paid her $19 an hour. Then a county judge sent her stepfather to jail for driving her to work each night, a violation of state child labor laws. Her mother also faces jail time for securing the fake papers that got the child the job in the first place. And her parents are terrified of being sent back to Guatemala, the country they left several years ago in search of a better life.
I suspect that this case, and others like it, are a bit of a Rorschach Test. Some will see it as a corporation exploiting desperate people, while others will see a family who shouldn’t be in the United States (and who exploited their own child by letting her work).
I will state from the onset that I am more sympathetic to desperate people whose desperation leads them to engage in, well, desperate behavior, but will certainly acknowledge that there are reasons to lay some blame in their direction. Packers paying a fine and the consequences for the family are ultimately not equivalent in my mind.
A sweeping investigation of Packers found 102 teens, ages 13 to 17, scouring slaughterhouses in eight states, part of a growing wave of child workers illegally hired to fill jobs in some of the nation’s most dangerous industries. Driven in part by persistent labor shortages and record numbers of unaccompanied migrant minors arriving from Central America, child labor violations have nearly quadrupled since 2015, according to Labor Department data, spiking in hazardous jobs that American citizens typically shun.
Packers has faced no criminal charges, despite evidence that it failed to take basic steps to verify the age of its young employees. Last month, it quickly resolved the case by paying a $1.5 million civil fine. The families of the teen workers, by contrast, have been exposed to child-abuse charges and potential deportation. None have applied for work permits and the protection against deportation that is available to the child workers, fearing retaliation in a company town where almost everyone’s job is somehow tied to the meatpacking industry.
Packers officials said they have dismissed all the minor workers and fired two managers in Grand Island. They accused “rogue individuals” of using counterfeit documents to prove that the children were of legal age and emphasized that the 102 workers made up a tiny share of the company’s 17,000-member workforce. The full statement from Packers is available here.
For anyone who has paid attention to this general topic will recognize the broad outlines here. Companies need employees and immigrants need work. Both either break, bend, and/or ignore the law to make the transaction happen. Once someone gets caught the company basically says “whoops” and pays a fine, and the employees (and often their broader communities) tend to suffer very direct consequences.
Let me pause and note that there is no easy solution to any of this. The easiest of them all is “seal the border” (or similar formulations) and it is an utter impossibility. As I have noted on multiple occasions, there are too many legitimate transactions across the border to “seal” it or “close” it in any meaningful fashion. Calls to “seal” the border are just a way of saying “I wish this problem would go away” with all the efficacy such a statement implies.
What I am constantly struck by when I read stories about immigrants and immigration policy are the very real market forces that help drive all of this behavior. There is a market for labor in this country that is not being satisfied and there is a supply of labor south of the border willing to do the work in question. There is also a very real demand for security and opportunity in many people living south of the border (especially in places like Guatemala and El Salvador) and the ample supply of security and opportunity in the United States. Combining these two push-pull circumstances means that US policymakers have some very, very powerful forces to contend with if we are going to find solutions to deal with this situation in any way that actually makes it better.
(I have held this view for decades, in fact).
Instead, we remain in a spiral of nonsensical approaches. We don’t want to really deal with the labor demands (which would include better enforcement of existing labor laws and, quite frankly, things like paying better wages to attract workers, but that would lead to higher prices that no one wants to pay). We don’t want to figure out a better way to allow labor to enter the country legally. We don’t want to pay to increase the bureaucracy needed to deal with migrants.
We really don’t want to do anything.
And I realize that at the base of my assumptions about this situation is that migrants are going to come and we need to figure out how to deal with that fact. This automatically makes the “seal the border” faction of the population want to ignore me as being an “open border” type. But the issue to me is simple: the empirical reality is that migrants are going to come. If the US really is the land of opportunity, the land of the free and the home of the brave, as well as a shining city on a hill, people are going to come. Desperation is a major motivator. Indeed, it seems to me that the desire for self-improvement, broadly defined, is a major motivator for a lot of humanity and human history shows that people will endure much to improve the lives of their children.
While I have no easy solution (and if an easy solution was possible in a Sunday morning blog post, well, the problem wouldn’t be inspiring blog posts), I will say this: if we had a flooding problem you solve that problem through the construction of dams, levies, dikes, canals, and the like to control the flow. Such systems do not guarantee universal fixes, but it allows for control of the flow of water, to help stop catastrophic flooding and to help direct the water where needed. You don’t just send out the bucket brigade while complaining that we need to “seal” the horizon.
I suspect that if we had a more rational process to deal with migrants, it would be possible to better control the flow (but it would never stop the illegal crossings).
Instead, we refuse to really do anything.
Oh, come now, Republicans are doing a great deal on the issue of immigration. And by ‘doing a great deal’ I mean raising a great deal of money from scared grannies who watch Fox News.
The issue is profitable for the GOP. The GOP will never engage in a serious effort to deal with it.
Bullshit, Dr. Joyner. It’s an easy fix.
Fine any company that uses minor immigrant labor $10Million per person caught. $10M.
Fine any company that uses adult illegal immigrants with phony papers $5Million per person.
It’s a supply and demand issue where one side doesn’t play by market rules. The obvious solution is for companies to pay wages high enough to attract workers, but they’d rather raise shareholder value at the expense of the poor and desperate.
Fucking spare me that we cant fix it. No. We don’t want to fix it because the the GOP can instead fund raise off off those scary brown people coming over the border.
@EddieInCA: Well, two thoughts.
1. James didn’t write the post.
2. I didn’t say we couldn’t fix it. I said we aren’t doing anything to fix it. (I said more than once for emphasis).
Criminally indicting corporate executives flouting the law should be pretty easy. Perhaps not a total solution, but certainly wouldn’t hurt.
@EddieInCA: One more thought:
From the OP above: “which would include better enforcement of existing labor laws and, quite frankly, things like paying better wages to attract workers, but that would lead to higher prices that no one wants to pay”
That is the problem in a nutshell for many issues, crime, immigration, homelessness, on and on and on. Pick the issue/concern and at best America approaches it with half measures.
@EddieInCA: The heck with corporate fines. It is time to make the crimes criminal instead of civil and jail a few folks. I think that will get the issue more attention.
@Steven L. Taylor:
My apoloiges for Dr. Joyner.
Bullshit, Dr. Taylor. We value shareholder value more than the humanity of black and brown people. That’s a fact. And the GOP makes too much money off of the immigration issue to ever actually do anything about it. So bullshit.
@Steven L. Taylor:
but that would lead to lower profits that Wall Street and investors hate.
Fixed that for you.
In most cases, companies could absorb the additional costs, but it would reduce profitability. Tyson Chicken, a notorioius and egregious repeat offender to labor laws, had a net income of 2.43 billion last year. The heck with raising prices. Just reduce profitability by 20% and all could have a living wage. But we value shareholder value more than people.
@EddieInCA: @EddieInCA: I just don’t understand (like, at all) why you are suggesting that I defending or excusing anything.
I noted a real problem.
I sympathized with the families.
I said something not unlike what you have said in the comments.
I lamented the fact that the US government won’t really do anything about it.
How am I the object of ire?
I suppose one could misinterpret “that would lead to higher prices that no one wants to pay” as meaning literally no one, or a defense of low prices. It was supposed to note that given the way Americans freak out about inflation, there is a sentiment that “no one” wants to pay more for anything. I was not suggesting this a normatively good thing. But does any reader think that there is some tolerance for higher prices in our general politics?
On balance, it is hard to get people to pay higher taxes or higher prices.
But would I personally prefer a world in which profits were not all the corporations worried about.
We have exceptions in our immigration law for people who are helpful in criminal cases — the U-Visa, according to the internet.
If we expanded the list of crimes that qualify to include unlawful employment, we could solve that problem. (Possible bad consequence might be creating a system where undocumented immigrants can only find work in criminal enterprises, as “grey” employers get prosecuted…)
Anyway, a lot of businesses want a second class of worker that they can abuse with impunity, so nothing will happen.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I wrote a post that seems to have gotten eaten in the ether. If this is a double post, please delete.
My apologies Dr. Taylor.
My ire was not directed at you personally. Im frustrated at the framing.
The MAGA wing of the GOP and FOX screams about immigrants every day all day. But the business wing of the GOP stops all attempts at actual reform. Yet it’s the Democrats that are described as wanting open borders because they want a path for these people who come here to work.
Framing matters. Messaging matters.
The people coming over the border who are demonized are filling a need created by “the market” but “the market” isn’t fulfilling its side of the equation. Instead they take advantage of desperate people with little or no accountability.
It’s tiresome to pretend otherwise. But as the recent legal filings have shown us, a large percentage of our fellow countrymen and women want and expect to be lied to.
It’s just tiresome.
I hate to be pedantic, but I’ve noticed that the good Dr. Taylor is not using punctuation correctly. If a complete sentence is inside parentheses, like the next one, then the period goes inside the closing paren. (This is an example.) I’m just trying to be helpful!
This is a fine article, and it’s unfortunate that people jump down your neck for pointing out issues.
This point is one made in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, published in [checks notes] 1906. IIRC, he was derided as a socialist, but, in fact, conditions in the meat packing industry improved for some workers. If we’re still valuing shareholder value over people, it is because sharholder value is more important than people. I don’t know how to fix that, but I’m willing to bet you that the moment some jurisdiction throws the CEO, CFO, and Chairman of a meatpacking corporation in the slam for violating immigration laws, SCOTUS is going to overturn the conviction quicker than you can say bracero, so I know that criminal penalties for the employers is not the answer no matter how much I want it to be.
A Grammar Nazi is still a Nazi!
Thanks. I appreciate you saying so.
Markets are neither good nor bad (although in US culture they are often seen as good, so maybe that is part of the frame that frustrates you).
To be clear: I think that the market forces in play here do exactly what you say: exploit desperate people. My point is that the the market forces are very powerful and need to be better addressed and just shouting about sealing the border is nonsense.
We need a reasonable, and certainly more humane, way to deal with this reality and instead we get inaction which leads to problems like the story in my OP highlights.
Thanks for the note. I am pretty sure that is a long-standing error.
@Steven L. Taylor:
In the bigger picture, this is one instance of a more general attribute of “conservatives” (for lack of a better word). When faced with a fact about human nature that they abhor, their solution is never to seek a response that makes life better for everyone, given that fact. Instead, they demonize the fact and institute policies that make life worse for everyone, and much worse for some. We see this with abortion, needle exchange programs, sex education, immigration law, food stamps, and countless other situations.
@Steven L. Taylor: “From the OP above: “which would include better enforcement of existing labor laws and, quite frankly, things like paying better wages to attract workers, but that would lead to higher prices that no one wants to pay””
That’s been covered, and the effects would be minor.