(NewsNation) — The revelation that child labor is happening on U.S. soil amid a surge of migrants crossing the southern border has spurred government officials to call for a crackdown on the businesses that benefit.
But those who’ve been fighting this problem for years say historically those efforts haven’t gone far enough.
After investigations from The New York Times and Reuters revealed the scope of child labor in the U.S., the Biden administration promised swift crackdowns that include more aggressive investigations into the companies that hire child workers.
This week, officials announced the creation of an interagency task force on child labor to better target those investigations, and lawmakers want steeper penalties for companies found breaking child protection laws. (Currently, a company can only be fined about $15,000 per child.)
Meanwhile, the Labor Department says it has 600 labor investigations ongoing, affecting almost 4,000 children — and it’s asking Congress to increase funding to investigate wrongdoers.
These are important first steps, said Estela de los Rios, who is a member of World Without Exploitation, a group that has been lobbying for harsher punishments for decades. Yet most labor trafficking cases are not prosecuted as criminal offenses, labor attorneys say.
“These industries, of course, they can afford a slap on the hand, they can afford to get an attorney. We have to make sure that they don’t do it again,” said de los Rios, who is also the director of the Center for Social Advocacy in San Diego.
For criminal child labor violations, federal regulations stipulate the maximum penalty for a first offense is a $10,000 fine, according to the Department of Labor website. Jail time is on the table for a second offense — a maximum of six months behind bars.
But labor experts say often misdeeds are often settled in civil instead of criminal court, and not prioritized by the agencies meant to investigate them — a practice that’s gone unchanged for decades.
What has changed is who is increasingly being exploited — unaccompanied migrant children — due to their tenuous legal status, as well as lack of English skills and a safe community network, said Ben O’Hearn, litigation director for Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Companies should be held accountable for what they’re doing. I don’t know if that’s the long-term solution, though,” O’Hearn said.
It’s no coincidence the number of child labor violations has risen with the number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. — up 70% and 20% respectively since 2018, experts say.
This steady flow is “a perfect setup for smugglers, traffickers,” de los Rios said. “This is modern-day slavery.”
A majority are asylum seekers from Central America, who are then released to sponsors or the foster care system, according to a Reuters investigation.
Yet, “authorities are struggling with long-term follow-up to prevent minors from being sucked into a vast network of enablers … (who) have steered kids into jobs that are illegal, grueling and meant for adults,” Reuters reports.
These children are often pressured to earn money any way they can, making them easy targets for unsafe workplaces.
“If we have a vulnerable teenager who is working as many hours a week as he or she can in a food packing shed or plants here in Michigan, if they’re doing that to provide for their family back home, but the family back home has to pay off this coyote, (that’s) debt bondage,” O’Hearn said.
Many experts say without an international solution, one that helps restore economic and political stability to countries like Honduras and Guatemala, it will be difficult to make lasting change north of the border.
“It just keeps people in the cycle of labor trafficking where they’re perpetually paying someone else,” O’Hearn said. “We need some way to really break these cycles of dependency.”