Yesterday, June 14, 2023, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on ways the United States can ensure the safety and well-being of children who enter the US without a parent or guardian. The hearing was spawned by the revelations from a New York Times article that companies had illegally hired children to work long hours in dangerous jobs, most of them minors who had entered the US as unaccompanied children. The safety of children in the US, whether citizens or non-citizens, should be a top priority of lawmakers. However, much of what we heard may set a dangerous precedent for how Congress will attempt to remedy child labor issues.
Our network includes some of the leading experts on labor trafficking, including child labor, in this country. The testimony and statements from members of Congress promoting securing the border and removing the protections for unaccompanied children in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) are rooted in racism and xenophobia. The TVPA protections require that all unaccompanied children entering the US be screened for human trafficking and be placed into protective custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Without this protocol in place, unaccompanied children will be deported back to dangerous conditions and potential exploitation. These children make the dangerous journey, walking hundreds of miles to escape poverty, political unrest, violence, and human trafficking. These protections are an essential trafficking prevention measure. Without them, the US is enabling the exploitation and trafficking of children at home and abroad.
These unfounded and racist proposals are not the solution to protecting unaccompanied children in the US. We know the solutions that work to prevent child labor and child trafficking are ones that reduce the vulnerabilities of children and their families and protect workers, not ones that reduce access to lifesaving immigration options. We cannot promote policies that force people into poverty or unsafe immigration status. Instead, we must:
- Enforce and strengthen labor laws by investing in the Department of Labor Wage & Hour Investigations so it has the capacity to investigate all potential child labor violations and hold companies who abuse labor laws accountable. Wage & Hour is underfunded and does not currently have the capacity to investigate all child labor and adult labor violations. In addition, corporate accountability, specifically initiatives that are worker-led, has been widely praised for protecting workers from labor exploitation – including human trafficking.
- Create an immigration system that does not force parents and guardians to work for poverty wages and provides strong legal protections for immigrant workers, so caregivers can provide everything their families need. The reality is that many children have to work to meet the basic needs of their families and guardians because their caregivers can’t access safe jobs with livable wages.
- Reform our economic and labor system so all children, regardless of citizenship status, are not made vulnerable to human trafficking or other forms of labor exploitation. People should be able to access well-paying and safe jobs, affordable and comprehensive healthcare, and affordable childcare and preschool so that children do not have to work in dangerous jobs to make ends meet.
- Invest in comprehensive social and legal services so children who experience exploitation or trafficking have the tools and resources to recover. This includes equipping our child welfare system to recognize and respond appropriately to instances of child labor exploitation and ensuring every child has access to an attorney.
Protecting unaccompanied children is an essential step in preventing human trafficking, but attacking the right to seek asylum and safety will only make people more vulnerable to human trafficking. Addressing human trafficking requires an approach that is focused on human rights, with an emphasis on decreasing vulnerabilities for everyone in the US. We will continue to pull back the curtain on solutions like this that are short-sighted and hurt the very people they claim to protect.