Six Strategies to Protect Immigrant Children from Exploitation and Labor Trafficking

For nearly 20 years, the staff and volunteers at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights have stood side by side with unaccompanied children seeking safety in the United States. Every day, we bear witness to their experiences in federal detention, their fight to be reunified with family or placed in foster care, and to find stability in the community while they wait — sometimes years — for our government to hear their requests for protection and permanency.

In a scathing indictment of our country’s failed immigration system, reporter Hannah Drier documented the horrific experiences some unaccompanied children face after arriving here — specifically, exploitation by American companies who hire children for patently dangerous work to to increase their profits.

This is not the first time children who fled their own countries have been subjected to new violence after arriving in our country. Nor will it be the last, unless we come together as a country and demand immediate reform of legal systems that fail to protect children’s rights. This reform must:

  1. Ensure counsel for every child in federal custody, who will ultimately appear in immigration court where they face deportation at the hands of a government attorney and immigration judge. Attorneys not only guide children through the immigration process but can guard against or identify other violations of their rights, such as exploitation and labor trafficking. Kids are smart — they know the deck is stacked against them and they see the one-sidedness and unfairness of our system on their first trip to court. Giving them an attorney, just as we do for children in other courts, means that they have a real shot at a fair process.
  2. Provide every child released from detention to their families with community-based support that addresses the huge challenges low-income families face in their daily survival. Most children are released to family members who are struggling to get by — they often have no access to health care, are ineligible for public benefits or live far from state, local, or mutual aid resources. Rather than spending exorbitant sums to detain children, the government should release children to family as quickly as possible and reinvest those funds into community-based services providers who can connect families to housing opportunities, food, and legitimate work that reduces children’s vulnerability to exploitation and labor trafficking.
  3. End policies that force children to separate from family members. Policies that prohibit families from seeking protection together have consequences for children who are forced to proceed alone. With the crisis in Ukraine, our government and our country demonstrated a willingness to welcome asylum-seekers rather than erecting barriers to their safe transit to the United States. We must apply the same principle of welcome to all asylum-seekers, particularly those arriving at our southern border.
  4. Expedite processes to provide work authorization to eligible children so that those old enough to work can seek out safe, appropriate employment and not fall victim to labor exploitation. Right now, children who seek asylum, or protection as special immigrant juveniles, could wait months — or even years — for papers that allow them to work, due to backlogs at USCIS. Those agencies carry as much responsibility to ensure teens’ access to safe work environments as HHS.
  5. Recognize and respect children’s right to safety and family. The Young Center is appointed as Child Advocate — best interests guardian ad litem — to more than 1,000 unaccompanied children every year. Our advocacy tracks fundamental principles of best interests advocacy: their rights to be heard, to be safe, to be with family, to be free of detention, to develop, and to maintain their identity. Every year, thousands of unaccompanied children are safely reunified with trusted family members. Changes in the policies and procedures governing children’s apprehension, custody, release, and immigration case can and should prioritize children’s best interests.
  6. Push back against anti-child — particularly anti-Brown and anti-Black child — proposals. We must reject reactionary proposals which suggest that we can prevent exploitation by further scrutinizing immigrant families, leaving children to spend more time in detention. We must also reject calls to increase family policing and the surveillance of immigrant families, which we know disproportionately impact families of color. We must interrogate any efforts to increase child labor in this country, which could put more Black and Brown children — whether immigrant or U.S. citizens — in harm’s way.

It’s the job of many agencies and actors to keep children safe, regardless of their immigration status. As the public, press, federal officials, politicians, and pundits seize on this article, we urge them to take action to truly protect children’s safety, by ensuring children have attorneys and child advocates, and that communities are resourced to care for children in their midst.

By the Young Center’s Senior Policy Analyst Mary Miller Flowers. You can view the full set of our recommendations here.

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Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights

The Young Center is a champion for kids in an immigration system not designed to treat them as children, by helping ensure that their best interests come first.